The Redskins name is really valuable, and really offensive. Here’s how to fix it.

January 14, 2013

Daniel Snyder is in a pickle.

He owns the Washington Redskins, a team with a brilliant young quarterback, decades of rich history, and, if numbers from Forbes are to be believed, a valuation of $1.56 billion, double what he paid for the team 14 years ago.

It is also a team with the most patently offensive name in pro sports. A 1999 ruling by the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board even found as much, revoking the Redskins’ trademark because it “may disparage Native Americans and bring them into contempt or disrepute.” The decision was overturned on the grounds that the lawsuit had not been pursued in a timely enough manner. D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray has suggested that he would want a name change to be part of any discussion about returning the team to the District from its current digs in Maryland.

How to solve the Redskins name problem without wrecking the franchise. (Photo by Toni L. Sandys/Washington Post)
How to solve the Redskins' name problem without wrecking the franchise. (Photo by Toni L. Sandys/Washington Post)

My colleague Mike Wise sums up the view of many Native Americans about the team name nicely: “When I visited the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota in 2007,” Wise wrote over the weekend, “a man named Leonard Littlefinger told me that if I walked into a bar on the reservation and said ‘Redskins,’ I would possibly be knocked unconscious.”

It’s easy to understand, though, why Snyder is reluctant to change the Redskins name. He would be putting at risk what is, by Forbes’s reckoning, the fourth most valuable sports franchise in the world, (behind Manchester United, the Dallas Cowboys and the New York Yankees). How many fans have spent a lifetime rooting for the burgundy and gold, singing “Hail to the Redskins,” and reaching deep into their pockets to purchase season tickets and commemorative jerseys? How much of that loyalty would go out the window if the Redskins name were tossed out the window?

When the Washington Bullets NBA franchise changed its name to the Wizards in 1997, in owner Abe Pollin’s statement against gun violence, the newfangled name and color scheme surely made fans that much less patient with the team’s mediocre performance over the years that followed.  Any disconnection from the glories of the past would surely endanger Redskins’ fans willingness to keep shelling out big money for a team that has been deeply mediocre under Snyder’s ownership (two playoff wins in 13 seasons, the most recent in 2005).

The Redskins have won 42.5 percent of their regular season games in the last decade, which puts them about on par with the Miami Dolphins and Tennessee Titans. Those two teams are, by Forbes’s estimates, worth around $1 billion each, which implies that the loyalty of Redskins fans, built out of past greatness, is worth something like half a billion dollars to Snyder (that is, the difference between the franchise value of the Redskins and that of similarly mediocre teams with smaller and less loyal fan bases).

But we’re here to offer solutions! Surely there should be a way to preserve that fan loyalty, that half-billion dollars in brand value, without keeping an offensive name. Here’s an idea:

Rename the team the “Skins.” Plain old “Skins.” It is a bit of a nonsense word for a mascot, but then so is the name of the Cleveland Browns (named for first head coach Paul Brown), or the New York Knicks (technically short for Knickerbockers, but just see how many fans at Madison Square Garden can tell you what a knickerbocker is).

Keep the burgundy and gold color scheme. Replace the face of an Indian chief on the helmet and logo with a picture of a football. Lose the Native American imagery altogether.

Change the fight song, “Hail to the Redskins” to “Hail to the best Skins.” It wouldn’t even be the first time that very fight song has been changed to make it less offensive! It used to go “Fight for Old Dixie,” not the current “Fight for Old D.C.”

Some fans will surely keep referring to the team as the Redskins, and it may take many years for the name to completely fade away. But it is a way for the team to end its formal ties with an offensive and archaic past while not shedding the ties to what is great in the franchise’s legacy. 

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Sarah Kliff | January 14, 2013