A large majority of area sports fans say the Washington Redskins should not change the team name, even though most supporters of the nickname feel the word “redskin” is an inappropriate term for Native Americans, according to a new Washington Post poll.
The debate over the team’s name has intensified in recent months as members of Congress, activists and media commentators criticized it as offensive to Native Americans and lobbied for change. But most Washingtonians — 61 percent — say they like the team’s name, and two-thirds say the team should not change it, according to the poll.
Among Redskins fans, about eight in 10 say the team should keep its name. Also, there’s some evidence that changing it might undermine support from some of the team’s most ardent backers.
“It’s been associated with the team for so long, I just don’t see any reason to change it now,” said retiree Joseph Braceland, 70. “It was not meant to be derogatory.”
A quarter of all area adults and slightly more than half of self-described Redskins fans say they “love” the team name, yet both groups overwhelmingly say that in general a new name wouldn’t make much difference to them.
Among those who want to keep the Redskins’ name, most — 56 percent — say they feel the word “redskin” is inappropriate. Only half as many — 28 percent — consider the term as an acceptable one to use.
“I think any word that you deal with, it depends on the context,” said Stephan Bachenheimer, a District resident who works for the World Bank and supports the Redskins’ name. “A lot of people have a hard time separating these issues.”
The name has been subject to much criticism and public debate this offseason, with both local and national leaders urging the team to consider a name change, a request the team has fervently resisted.
In the new poll, 28 percent of all Washingtonians say the team should change its name, far above the 11 percent nationally who said so in a recent Associated Press poll.
“I don’t believe in being super politically correct — I have a sense of humor — but I think this name came about at a time when there was very different awareness about the plight of the American Indians,” said Mary Falvey, 60, who works in communications for the Food and Drug Administration. “I just don’t think it’s appropriate. There’s increased sensitivity about race in this country today — for the good.”
While feelings about the team’s nickname were similar across most demographics, the percentage advocating a shift in the D.C. area peaks at 39 percent among African Americans with college degrees. (There weren’t enough Native Americans among the poll’s 1,106 respondents for meaningful comparison; Native Americans make up less than 1 percent of the population in the region, according to Census data.)
According to poll results, education plays a role more broadly: 34 percent of all area college graduates say change the name, compared with 21 percent of those with less formal education.
“Leave the name alone,” said Eileen Schilling, 52, who works in construction sales. “It’s ridiculous. It’s getting completely out of hand. Pretty soon we won’t be able to dye our hair because it might offend someone. I’m Irish. Should the Notre Dame Fighting Irish change their name because I don’t like it? Hell no. What about the Kansas City Chiefs? The Cleveland Indians? Should the Eagles change their names because it’s a national symbol? It’s ridiculous.”
A Redskins spokesman declined to comment Tuesday on the poll results. The team recently hired Republican strategist Frank Luntz to hold focus groups locally, and the team’s nickname was among the topics addressed.
Despite the criticism, the Redskins have vowed to stick with the name. “We’ll never change the name,” owner Daniel Snyder told USA Today last month. “It’s that simple. NEVER — you can use all caps.”
“I think it’s a nonissue, and it’s been a nonissue for decades,” Redskins General Manager Bruce Allen said. “We really don’t get the talk that other people get because we hear from our fans. And our fans will always be our fans of the Washington Redskins.”
Despite all of the public debate over the issue, around 8 in 10Redskins fans and non-fans alike say changing the name would not affect their support for the team.
Still, there is some evidence the team may face a backlash among its strongest supporters if the team did change the name. Among avid sports fans who have strongly favorable impressions of the Redskins, 15 percent say they would be less of a fan of the team if it were to change its name; only 2 percent say they would be more of a fan. Fully 64 percent of the Redskins’ most ardent fans say they love the team name.
Silvio Chicas, 30, a building engineer in the District, said he has invested plenty in Redskins shirts, hats and jerseys. He cringes when he hears about possible replacement names — “Skins” or “Redtails” have been among those mentioned — and a change would “drive me to a different team.”
“ ‘Redskins’ is what I fell in love with,” Chicas said. “It’s our area team. Look, I’m Hispanic, a lot of my friends are black, white, American Indian, and we all love the Redskins. We support our team. We support our logos, our song, everything.”
Local politicians haven’t been shy about expressing their reservations in recent months. Mayor Vincent Gray (D) said that the team name could complicate any future move by the team back to the old RFK Stadium site in the District, and Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said she avoids calling the team by its nickname. In March she introduced a bill that would void any existing trademarks that include the word “Redskins.”
The issue has found some traction outside the Beltway, as well. A handful of newspapers and writers around the country — in addition to those from District-based outlets such as the Washington City Paper and the DCist — have vowed to avoid using the term “Redskins.” Several schools around the country are considering ditching the nickname. On Monday, Port Townsend High in Washington state became the latest when the local school board voted unanimously to end an 90-year history with the Redskins name.
Ten members of Congress last month sent a letter to Snyder and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, urging a name change and calling Redskins “a racial, derogatory slur akin to the ‘N-word’ among African Americans or the ‘W-word’ among Latinos.”
“Such offensive epithets would no doubt draw wide-spread disapproval among the NFL’s fan base,” the letter read. “Yet the national coverage of Washington’s NFL football team profits from a term that is equally disparaging to Native Americans.”
Goodell responded with a letter of his own, saying the name was never “meant to denigrate Native Americans or offend any group.”
“The Washington Redskins name has thus from its origin represented a positive meaning distinct from any disparagement that could be viewed in some other context,” Goodell wrote. “For the team’s millions of fans and customers, who represent one of America’s most ethnically and geographically diverse fan bases, the name is a unifying force that stands for strength, courage, pride and respect.”
For some area fans, the issue is confined to the public soapbox and doesn’t resonate much with those who buy tickets, wear team logos and spend their Sundays during the fall and winter planted in front of televisions.
“Not only the newspapers — the talk show hosts, the columnists, all of those people are making it a bigger issue than it actually is,” said Brian Metro, 44, a Washington accountant. “It’s one of those things that if nobody talked about it, it wouldn’t bother anybody. But it keeps getting brought up every couple months.”
Cohen is polling director for Capital Insight, Washington Post Media’s independent polling group. Capital Insight pollsters Peyton M. Craighill and Scott Clement contributed to this report.