The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion ‘Red Wolves’ remains the best choice for the new name for the Washington Football Team

FedEx Field is home to the Washington Football Team, which announced it would unveil the organization's new mascot on Feb. 2. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

Ryan M. Darr is a postdoctoral research associate at the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University.

The red wolf, native to the Southeastern United States, stands on the leading edge of the extinction crisis. Only a handful remain in the wild. Unsurprisingly, some conservationists are thrilled at the prospect of renaming the Washington Football Team for the red wolves, the nation’s most endangered mammal, even if the team teased on Tuesday that “Wolves” would not be the team’s name because of copyright issues.

The name, as a conservationist working with red wolves said, would bring recognition to the cause and improve the wolf’s chances of survival. In fact, the name can do even more.

One reason we are losing so many species is that we simply do not pay attention. Few of us know which species are endemic to our region and which among them are endangered. This lack of attention is a symptom of a deeper problem. In “Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants,” Robin Wall Kimmerer writes that the early European settlers lived in the land without belonging to it, as if they had one foot on the land and one still in the boat. Many of us continue to live as if the land belongs to us but we do not belong to it. How might we learn to belong to the land, to become, as Kimmerer puts it, truly native to a place?

Drawing from the Anishinaabe story of Nanabozho, Kimmerer begins with a simple suggestion: Get to know the nonhuman relatives with whom we share the land. The goal is not simply to accumulate knowledge. The goal is to learn who we are and who we can be, to form identities inextricably bound up with the land and its many nonhuman inhabitants. But we can’t do this individually. Identity is always formed in community. In most local American cultures, native plants and animals remain marginal. One prominent role for animals is as names for sports teams, yet teams are rarely named for local species (lions and tigers in Detroit?). While naming a sports team for an endangered local species is hardly a radical move, it could have a meaningful impact.

Sports teams play an important role in American culture, including in constructing local identities. Americans cheer wholeheartedly for local teams and invest an impressive amount of energy in their fandom. According to sports psychologists, being a sports fan is often part of one’s identity. Even those who do not follow sports can find themselves invested when local pride is at stake. Indeed, local communal identity often appears more firmly rooted in sports allegiances than in shared land, climate and wildlife. If sports teams reflected local wildlife, perhaps identity could be rooted in both at once.

To see how this might matter concretely, consider an example related to national identity. In the mid-20th century, the threat to the bald eagle energized the conservation movement. As the national bird of the United States, the bald eagle not only features in our iconography but is also part of who we are. The possible extinction of our national bird struck many as a personal and communal loss in a way that other extinctions did not. The effort to save it succeeded remarkably. The number of breeding pairs of bald eagles in the lower 48 states, estimated at 487 nesting pairs in the 1960s, rose to nearly 10,000 in 2006, and the bird was removed from the Endangered Species List a year later. The threatened loss of a native species for which a local team is named might have a similar effect.

Some worry that retaining “red” in the name would not adequately eliminate the racist scourge of the former name. This concern should be taken seriously. But adopting the "Red Wolves" name might actually be an opportunity — clumsy and inadequate, to be sure — to honor the insights of Indigenous traditions that Kimmerer holds up. Renaming a football team after an endangered native (or once-native) species would be a tiny step in rethinking our relationship to the land, but it would be a step in the right direction.

I don’t mean to suggest that renaming sports teams is the solution to our extinction crisis — far from it. It will not do much for less charismatic species, like D.C.'s only officially endangered species, the Hay’s spring amphipod. But the names of teams in which we are invested — by which we identify ourselves — matter. The Washington Football Team has the opportunity not only to elevate the red wolf but also to make it part of a community’s identity. In doing so, it might energize efforts to reintroduce red wolves in Virginia. It might also become a model. One day, the Washington Red Wolves could face off against the Kansas City Whooping Cranes or the Tampa Bay Manatees. Red wolves, whooping cranes and manatees would be better for it. So would we.