If your team changes its racist name, you'll be fine

July 5, 2020

With the NFL franchise in Washington and the MLB franchise in Cleveland reportedly moving toward name changes, it’s worth remembering just how long efforts to change the team names have been going on and why they haven't changed yet. Recognition that the names are racist is not new; what’s new is major sponsors have less tolerance for racist team names, mascots, and imagery given today’s cultural upheaval and that’s finally pushing team owners to (grudgingly?) change.

Twenty-eight years ago, Tony Kornheiser wrote a column in the Washington Post explaining why “Redskins” is the easiest name to change because it’s so clearly a slur, and even then from his context you can tell this conversation had been around for anyone who cared to hear it. But even if you resist the notion that “Redskin” is an obvious slur, he pointed out, a whole bunch of colleges had already dropped their Native-themed mascot names in recognition that the practice of naming teams after Native people is demeaning, no matter anyone’s intentions, so why wouldn't Washington's NFL team do the same?

Again: none of this is new. As soon as the Atlanta Braves started actively promoting the “Tomahawk Chop” at their games, people began protesting. Then throughout the Braves’ run of success in the 1990s, they kept protesting. When Ryan Helsley spoke out last season, the ugliness of the chant and gesture got another round of attention. People have been speaking to this with moral clarity for years. Did you care to hear?

Way back in 2012, my friend Peter Pattakos wrote what I consider the definitive history of how the Cleveland Indians got their name. That story included a thorough debunking of the tale the club long proffered that the name was in honor of Native player Louis Sockalexis, which in turn showed that the Indians organization didn’t have an honest explanation for why it continued to use Chief Wahoo, their red-faced, big-nosed, smiling mascot.

Of course, there are people who insist that certain names and images may be offensive to some people, but aren’t offensive enough to them and people like them to warrant changing. That’s not new. In 2007, the University of Illinois ordered the end of “Chief Illiniwek”, a mascot often portrayed by a white guy who would do a made-up crossed-arm dance on the Illini basketball court at halftime. Just this past March, Will Leitch wrote about how Illinois fans keep “the Chief” alive, suggesting that the old mascot is a convenient proxy for certain segments of society to seethe about the changing world and changing standards for kindness to others. Look at the video Leitch embedded in his column.

I think Leitch is mostly right. The “dance” is mortifying enough, but the crying white people ratchets this up to another level. If you read the YouTube comments (never read the comments), you’ll see a common theme: a complete disconnect that “the Chief” is a reference to actual living people. Those white folks crying about losing “their Chief” are in pain because someone forced them to consider how other people wish to be seen and treated, which necessarily led them to think about their own whiteness, which they weren't prepared to do. If that sounds familiar, it’s not a new idea.

Did you know Stanford University teams were called the “Indians” until 1972? I grew up in San Francisco and had no idea until I was an adult. I haven’t found any surveys on the matter, but I suspect nobody who matters cares about the old name anymore because the mascot matters a lot less than the institution and its community, especially with colleges, where new sub-communities are created every year. “Cardinal” — the color! — isn’t all that evocative on its own, but it’s what Stanford and its athletes do that gives it its reputation and engenders alumni loyalty, not the name.

But what about pro sports, where people's affiliations are a little more fluid? If we’re rooting for laundry, isn’t the name and the related symbolism what ultimately keeps everyone together in the same in-group? Of course not. Those are just secondary signals for the group, which bonds together over the team's actual actions and accomplishments, on and off the field. That is, the New York Yankees could have been called the New York Rhinos this entire time, with a big R on their caps, and they would still have the same huge fan base because their brand is tied to championships and New York City exceptionalism. I'm not just talking out of my ass, either; we have recent evidence showing that a team's name matters far less than its actions and accomplishments.

After the 2013-14 NBA season, the Charlotte Bobcats changed their name to the Charlotte Hornets. There had been a sustained campaign by PR-savvy fans to recapture the name of the franchise that had been a local sensation in the 1990s before moving to New Orleans amid a cloud of scandal and arena-related animosity. The Bobcats had topped out at 44 wins and a first-round sweep in 2010, and after a historically terrible 7-59 record in the lockout-shortened 2012 season, rode Kemba Walker’s development to again become a borderline playoff team in the East, just before the name change.

When looking at the team’s fortunes after the name change, what jumps out is how there’s no obvious change. It’s hard to isolate the effects of the name change from the team’s on-court performance and the NBA’s national television deal and the tail end of the Great Recession, but in 2012 the Hornets were 28th in home attendance by percentage of capacity, then in 2013 they were 25th, in 2014 they were 25th, and in 2015, they were 23rd. This past year, they were 28th. Their revenue has gone up dramatically the past few years, but so has every NBA team’s.

The name didn’t bring in new fans. The Bobcats were a uniquely dismissed expansion franchise (having the NBA’s first black owner, a proud media magnate who didn’t automatically kiss the rings of local power brokers in a Southern city, didn’t help), so few, if any, people were going to leave their fandom over this the way Dan Snyder might fear people would leave his franchise if he changes the name. But what it does strongly suggest is that winning is virtually everything.

All that's to say if the Washington Redtails were to face the Kansas City Chiefs (with firefighter logos) in Super Bowl LVI, and if the Cleveland Spiders were to play the Atlanta Hammer in the 2022 World Series, those fanbases would come out in force because the actual bonds of the fandom aren't the logos and symbolism the teams employ.

Winning brings fans together and makes them feel good. Losing and incompetence makes fans feel badly about their teams. That’s also not new.