Three weeks ago, the Supreme Court decided unanimously in Matal v. Tam to protect Americans’ ability to trademark names that may be considered offensive. In response, Daniel Snyder, longtime owner of the Washington Redskins football team, declared, “I am THRILLED. Hail to the Redskins!”
Not everyone was equally thrilled. Washington Post columnist Kevin Blackistone wrote, “ … a football franchise celebrated being known by a historically disparaging word for an oppressed people of color. That is its right, and it’s wrong.” A growing number of media outlets, journalists and on-air sports commentators agreed and have publicly pledged not to use the term to refer to the team, believing that the term denigrates Native Americans.
Does that affect public opinion?
In a recent paper, we explored this question. The answer: Yes, it does. After learning that a high-profile sports journalist condemns the continued use of “Redskins,” white Americans more strongly support changing that team’s name — and more strongly view the term as offensive. That’s especially pronounced among white Democrats.
Here’s how we did our research
To explore elite influence on public opinion about the team’s name, we conducted a survey experiment on the 2014 Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES). We randomly assigned a sample of white respondents to one of four groups. We focused only on white public opinion because white Americans have opposed changing teams’ names more strongly than nonwhites. Since our interest was in whether and how such messages can change minds from opposition to support, whites were where we focused.
We asked all respondents 1) whether they agreed that the Washington Redskins should change their team’s name, and 2) whether they agreed that the name “Washington Redskins” is offensive to Native Americans. The first group was given no other information.
The other three groups were each asked these questions, but were also shown a picture and quote calling the name offensive, attributed either to retired Democratic senator and former majority leader Harry M. Reid; Republican senator and 2008 Republican presidential nominee John McCain; or NBC broadcaster Bob Costas. We used those three because they are the most prominent Democratic, Republican and sports media elite figures who have publicly opposed the continued use of the term “Redskins.”
For instance, here’s what the Costas group saw:
The quote we used came from a 2014 letter to the National Football League (NFL) signed by 50 members of the Senate; the question about whether the term “Redskins” was offensive came directly from a 2014 interview with Senator McCain.
The sports broadcaster’s opinion had a significant effect. The senators’, not so much.
The two senators’ opinions had very little effect, as you can see in the figure below.
But Costas’s opposition made our respondents 5 points more likely to strongly support changing the team’s name. And the Costas group were nine points more likely to agree that the team’s name is offensive. These differences are statistically significant.
Costas’s opposition influenced white Democrats but not white Republicans
In general, white Democrats are more likely than Republicans to say that the team should change its name, according to recent polls. They’re also more likely to be swayed by Costas’s opinion, we found. For our sample of white Democrats, seeing the Costas example boosted support for both a team name change by 21 percent, and increased their belief that the name is offensive to Native Americans by 24 percent. But Costas’s point of view had no effect on our group of white Republicans, who didn’t change their minds on either point.
Of course, our research design has its limitations. In our experiment, respondents didn’t see any competing elite messages on this controversy, as they would in ordinary news coverage — and research shows that variety of opinions often affects how citizens form their own points of view.
Nevertheless, sports commentators have a vast and dedicated audience. Our results suggest that sports journalists and broadcasters can have a big effect on the public conversation about what to call Washington’s professional football team.
Elizabeth A. Sharrow is an assistant professor in the departments of political science and history at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
Tatishe M. Nteta is an associate professor in the department of political science at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
Melinda Tarsi is an assistant professor in the department of political science at Bridgewater State University.