Since the Justice Department decided in June to back away from a legal fight over the Washington Redskins' nickname, the football team carried on with its season. It won a few games, lost a few more, and the issue was largely dormant.
But on Wednesday fans were greeted with web pages from what appeared to be legitimate news sources touting a surprising name change, saying the Redskins had bowed to political pressure and would instead be called the Redhawks beginning next year.
It was football’s spin on fake news, but the websites, created by an alliance of American Indian activists, were convincing enough to fool some and entice many others to share the links on social media, reigniting the nickname controversy.
“The point of this was to start the conversation again,” said Sebastian Medina-Tayac, one of the organizers behind the stunt, in a telephone interview. “This is an issue that comes up very dramatically. People really care about it and then something else hits the news cycle or the team does some PR gymnastics and sort of squirms their way out of facing it head on. We wanted to make it immediate and urgent by allowing people to imagine a world where that mascot is gone, the name is changed and see how people react to it.”
The elaborate campaign included a Twitter account and five carefully-crafted Web pages. One of the pages closely resembled the Redskins' official website, but featured a burgundy and gold logo of a hawk head, not the familiar Redskins logo.
The Redskins quickly took notice and issued a statement reaffirming their commitment to the nickname. “This morning, the Redskins organization was made aware of fraudulent websites about our team name,” Tony Wyllie, the Redskins’ senior vice president of communications, said in a statement sent via email. “The name of the team is the Washington Redskins and will remain that for the future.”
Wyllie said the matter had been forwarded to the league office. A spokesman for the NFL did not immediately return a request for comment.
The other pages resembled the news sites of The Washington Post, ESPN, Sports Illustrated and Bleacher Report and featured fake news stories related to the supposed name change, citing names of real people including activists, politicians, fans, Redskins Coach Jay Gruden and team owner Daniel Snyder.
Organizers say they had not been asked by the team or any outlets to take down the sites. An ESPN spokesman said: “We are aware of the site and are exploring our legal options to protect our intellectual property.”
Kris Coratti, vice president of communications at The Post, said: “We believe the use of our intellectual property in this way is inappropriate and we are weighing our legal options.”
The group behind the campaign is called Rising Hearts and is composed of members of several tribes. Many have no formal connection to past efforts to change the name, and the organizers say they were surprised by the reaction online and how quickly the links spread on social media.
“It demonstrates that the change that advocates have been asking for is not that big of a deal,” said Rebecca Nagle, a member of the Cherokee Nation. “You can keep the colors, keep the iconic things about Washington football. All we are asking for is four letters. For all the harm that the mascot does against Native people, one thing the action did today was make clear how small the fix is for a problem that is such a big deal to so many people.”
The activists plan to hold a news conference on Thursday in Washington and a rally on Sunday at FedEx Field, before the Redskins host the Arizona Cardinals.
“We need to see now how we can make a viral social media campaign turn into a viral physical movement,” said Medina-Tayac, “where people show up, put their time on the line, their bodies on the line to stand against something that’s unjust.”
Snyder has called the team nickname a “badge of honor” and has vowed to never change it. But the name has been a divisive issue for several years, invigorating fans, activists, members of the media and politicians. Washington Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) has spoken against it, and in 2013 the city council passed a resolution urging the team to change the name, calling it ““racist and derogatory.”
The organizers say they have no illusions that Snyder might be persuaded by an online campaign, but Wednesday’s efforts might remind the NFL that for many American Indians, the issue isn’t going away.
“Dan Snyder has made it abundantly clear that he personally is not going to change the name,” Nagle said. “I really think the NFL needs to step in.”
Until Wednesday’s online campaign, efforts to push for a name change had been mostly quiet in recent months. The Justice Department had been challenging the team’s trademark until the Supreme Court’s June ruling in favor of an Asian American band that called itself the Slants, which signaled to many that the Redskins would prevail over any efforts to cancel the team’s trademarks.
The project was months in the making, bringing together activists who’d previously worked on a variety of American Indian and environmental issues, including the Standing Rock protests earlier this year.
“This is not a hoax or a prank,” said Medina-Tayac, a member of the Piscataway tribe. “It’s an organizing effort that was meant to demonstrate the immediacy and the very real need for the Washington football team to change its names. We’re just proposing an alternative that a lot of people seem excited about.”