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What’s in a Name? Symbolic Racism, Public Opinion, and the Controversy over the NFL’s Washington Football Team Name

A Correction to this article was published on 10 May 2022

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Abstract

According to Daniel Snyder, owner of the National Football League Team formerly known as the Washington “Redskins,” “the name really means honor and respect.” For decades, Snyder pointed to polls that suggest majoritarian support among the American public to justify the continued use of the racially contested team moniker. However, Indigenous activists and their allies have long argued that the term “Redskins” is a racial slur. Using data from the 2014 Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES), this paper investigates the role of racial attitudes—specifically symbolic racism directed at Native Americans—in shaping public opinion about the name change during a period of heightened public attention to the debate over the team’s name. Our findings indicate that support for the continued use of the team’s name, though admittedly widespread among the American public, is in part influenced by negative racial attitudes directed at Native Americans. By engaging the literature on the politics of symbolic racism we demonstrate that, rather than “honoring” American Indians, those supportive of Native American mascots and symbols in professional football are significantly likely to begrudge them.

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Data Availability

Elizabeth Sharrow will share all data and coding for replication purposes on request.

Change history

Notes

  1. Throughout the text, we limit reference to the team’s former name, “Washington Redskins.” Because the name enacts spiritual, emotional, social and cultural harm on Indigenous people, we use the term “R-word” wherever possible to refer to the team’s former name. We only use to term itself when it is employed in direct quotes and when relevant to specify our research design. Our decision regarding terminology draws from leading scholars in the field (King 2016, see also Mihesuah 2005). That the term refers directly to the nineteenth century bounty placed on slaughtered Native Americans informs our decision to limit its use.

  2. In line with King (2016) and the publications of the National Congress of American Indians, we interchangeably use American Indian(s) and Native American(s) when referring to Indigenous people.

  3. During the summer of 2020 in the midst of nation-wide protests against the police murder of George Floyd and larger discussions of issues of racial inequality, the team’s top sponsor, FedEx, threatened to cancel their naming rights contract unless the team changed the name. FedEx’s decision lead to a cascade of the team’s sponsors similarly calling for a name change. On July 13, 2020 the team officially changed its name to the “Washington Football Team.”

  4. As of fall 2020, four American professional men’s sports teams continue to feature American Indian symbols, names, and mascots. These mascots are printed on apparel and sports paraphernalia and, as such, they permeate sports broadcasting, leisure clothing, and American society more generally.

  5. Many other organizations have also endorsed this stance (see King 2010, pp. 255–257).

  6. Although the NCAA policy includes some special exceptions for teams which receive tribal blessing for the use of their names (i.e., the Utah Utes and the Florida Seminoles), several universities which changed their mascots to comply with policy continue to be embroiled in conflict as students and alumni persist in celebrating the retired symbols (i.e., University of North Dakota and the University of Illinois). Permissive historical practices around unauthorized Indigenous mascots have either ended or become contested, but conflict remains at both the collegiate and high school levels.

  7. The trademark was later reauthorized when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Matal v. Tam, to protect American’s rights to trademark names that are racially offensive, events which transpired after our survey was in the field.

  8. Snyder has claimed that Indigenous people support the use of the term “Redskins,” citing a controversial Annenberg Public Policy Center Poll (2004) and a 2016 Washington Post study (Cox et al. 2016). Scholars argue that such claims misstate the findings from the data, citing evidence that respondents strategically claim an identity “as Indian,” regardless of a bonafide tribal affiliation (King et al. 2002; Springwood 2004). Research which investigates the opinion of Indigenous people reveals that Native Americans are more offended by the use of Indigenous symbols than are others in the American public (Jacobs 2014; Laveay et al. 2009).

  9. See also Ferguson (2016).

  10. This article theorizes and explores the latter, although we acknowledge that, in practice, the processes may not be entirely unidirectional. Recursive feedback effects in the co-construction of negative racial attitudes and Indigenous mascots could be at play, over time. Because our data are cross-sectional, we limit our analyses to that which we can reasonably assess: the discrete relationship between racial attitudes and the Washington team name.

  11. The #takeaknee protests in the NFL, and the backlash against peaceful protest in sports by President Trump, illustrate this point (Nteta et al. 2017).

  12. Our questions foreground reactions to the team’s name. Billings and Black (2018) note that, in contrast to evaluations of images (as in the case of the MLB Cleveland Indian’s “Chief Wahoo” and other symbols, see Staurowsky 2004, 2007) or rituals (as in the case of Florida State University’s pre-game practices, see King 2016), the name, “Redskins,” is central to negative public reaction and is, therefore, a difficult test of our theory.

  13. This measure is calculated using U.S. Census data.

  14. President Obama announced his ambivalence over the continued use of the name on October 5, 2013 (Nakarmura 2013). In May 22, 2014, 50 members of the U.S. Senate addressed a letter of concern about the name to the NFL (Hulse and Schneider 2014).

  15. This result, compared to the 2013 AP-GfK poll which found 79% of respondents responded “don’t change the name,” while 11% supported a change to the team name (AP-GfK 2013).

  16. See also critiques of polls which purport to measure the opinions of Native Americans (Springwood 2004) including who is allowed to “claim” indigenous identity (Staurowsky 2007) and particularly in case of the 2016 Washington Post poll (Keeler 2016). Scholars also analyze how colonialist logics can be internalized by oppressed groups in the case of mascot issues (i.e., Endres 2005).

  17. Reports consistently show that poverty rates and economic inequality remain chronically high for Native Americans compared to the general population (Sarche and Spicer 2008; Wilson and Mokhiber 2017).

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Funding

The authors wish to thank the Center for Democratic Governance and Leadership at Bridgewater State University and the Department of Political Science, the Department of History, and the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst for the financial support of this project.

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All authors contributed equally to the research and writing of this manuscript.

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Correspondence to Elizabeth A. Sharrow.

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Appendix: Question Wording from the 2014 CCES, Pre-election

Appendix: Question Wording from the 2014 CCES, Pre-election

Washington Redskins Name Change: Recently, there has been a lot of debate about the NFL team the Washington Redskins changing their team’s name. Do you support or oppose the Washington Redskins changing their team’s name? (1) Strongly Support; (2) Somewhat Support; (3) Neither Support or Oppose; (4) Somewhat Oppose; (5) Strongly Oppose; (6) Don’t Know.

Washington Redskins Name Offensive: Some people say that the name the Washington Redskins is offensive to Native Americans. Others say that the name is not offensive and is a positive symbol of Native Americans. How about you…Do you agree or disagree that the Washington Redskins’ team name is offensive to Native Americans? (1) Strongly Support; (2) Somewhat Support; (3) Neither Support or Oppose; (4) Somewhat Oppose; (5) Strongly Oppose; (6) Don’t Know.

NFL Favorite Team: What is your favorite National Football League (NFL) team? [Text box response].

NFL Interest: Some people seem to follow what’s going on in sports most of the time. Others aren’t that interested. Would you say you follow what’s going on in the National Football League (NFL)? (1) Most of the time; (2) Some of the time; (3) Only now and then; (4) Hardly at all; (5) Never.

NFL Sophistication Index:

NFL Sophistication Question 1: We’d now like to ask you some questions about the National Football League. Who holds the all-time NFL rushing record? (response options randomized) (1) Emmitt Smith; (2) Jim Brown; (3) Walter Payton; (4) Barry Sanders; (5) Don’t Know.

NFL Sophistication Question 2: What NFL team is the last team to go undefeated in the regular season AND win the Super Bowl? (response options randomized) (1) New England Patriots; (2) San Francisco 49ers; (3) Denver Broncos; (4) Miami Dolphins; (5) Don’t Know.

Native American Symbolic racism: Please rate your level of agreement or disagreement with the following statements:

(A) Most Native Americans work hard to make a living just like everyone else.

(B) Most Native Americans take unfair advantage of privileges given to them by the government.

(1) Strongly Agree; (2) Agree; (3) Neither Agree nor Disagree; (4) Disagree; (5) Strongly Disagree; (6) Don’t Know.

Sports Media Attention: Generally, how often do you read, watch, or listen to SPORTS news? (1) Every day; (2) Sometimes; (3) Rarely; (4) Never.

Race: What racial or ethnic group best describes you? (1) White; (2) Black; (3) Hispanic; (4) Asian; (5) Native American; (6) Mixed; (7) Other; (8) Middle Eastern.

Gender: Are you male or female? (1) Male; (2) Female.

Age: In what year were you born?

Education: What is the highest level of education you have completed?

(1) No HS; (2) High school graduate; (3) Some college; (4) 2-year; (5) 4-year; (6) Post-grad.

Party ID: Would you call yourself a strong Democrat or a not very strong Democrat? Would you call yourself a strong Republican or a not very strong Republican? Do you think of yourself as closer to the Democratic or the Republican Party? (1) Strong Democrat; (2) Not very strong Democrat; (3) Lean Democrat; (4) Independent; (5) Lean Republican; (6) Not very strong Republican; (7) Strong Republican; (8) Not sure.

Ideology: Thinking about politics these days, how would you describe your own political viewpoint? (1) Very liberal; (2) Liberal; (3) Moderate; (4) Conservative; (5) Very Conservative; (6) Not sure.

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Sharrow, E.A., Tarsi, M.R. & Nteta, T.M. What’s in a Name? Symbolic Racism, Public Opinion, and the Controversy over the NFL’s Washington Football Team Name. Race Soc Probl 13, 110–121 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12552-020-09305-0

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Keywords

  • Native American mascots
  • Symbolic racism
  • Race
  • American Indians
  • Public opinion