Our senior consultant Andrew Weltch looks at the recent heightened controversy over some sports teams’ names, accused of reinforcing ethnic stereotypes – and what they’re doing (or not doing) about it.
There are all sorts of weird and wonderful names in sports. Often they aim to suggest power and strength (Leeds Rhinos of English rugby league) or speed (Free State Cheetahs of South African rugby union) or both (San Jose Sharks of the NHL).
Those examples all come from the animal kingdom. But when a team picks a name inspired by the human race, it opens up (to borrow from the animal kingdom again) a whole can of worms, and potentially puts the cat among the pigeons.
This is particularly true if there is an ethnic dimension, as with many names inspired by Native American culture.
There has been controversy around some of these for many years, but the debates came to a head in summer 2020 amid the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Here’s what has happened for five of those teams:
Washington Redskins (NFL)
The National Football League (NFL) team adopted the Redskins name in 1933, when still based in Boston, and took it to Washington when it moved in 1937.
There’s been controversy over the name for decades, with accusations that it is offensive to Native Americans. After much resistance, the name was dropped in summer 2020, and the team is currently known as Washington Football Team, pending a new title.
Edmonton Eskimos (CFL)
The Eskimos (or Esquimaux) nickname may go back as far as the rugby football team of the 1890s and officially dates from 1910. Said to represent fortitude and a sense of community, the name was defended by the team’s board of directors, until they backed down in summer 2020, after accusations that the word was offensive to Inuit people.
Now simply Edmonton Football Team (or EE Football Team), until a new name is agreed, the organisation has time (if not necessarily the resources) to adapt, with the Canadian Football League season cancelled due to the pandemic and the federal government refusing financial support.
Exeter Chiefs (Premiership Rugby, England)
The English rugby union club officially adopted the Chiefs name as recently as 1999, but it was used informally when I worked in local Exeter media in the 1980s and may go back to the early 20th century.
A campaign opposing the name as derogatory gained support from the local MP and prompted a review by the club’s board in summer 2020. It concluded that the name was not offensive and would remain, but the ‘Big Chief’ mascot would be retired.
Cleveland Indians (MLB)
Cleveland’s baseball team took the Indians name in 1915, and has faced controversy since the 1970s. Last year (2019) it dropped its caricature Native American mascot Chief Wahoo, but has resisted calls to change its name.
In July 2020, hours after Washington’s statement, Cleveland announced it would also review the name, but so far its progress has been slower than the football team’s.
Chicago Blackhawks (NHL)
Chicago’s hockey team has carried the Blackhawks name since 1926 (though for the first 60 years as ‘Black Hawks’). It has argued that it honours Black Hawk, whose leadership has inspired generations of Native Americans.
But growing dissent in recent years has put the name in the spotlight, especially at a time when the Redksins and Indians both agreed reviews. As I write this, Chicago is resisting change, but for how long?
These are just a handful of examples from the top level of their sports, but there are more, including Atlanta Braves (MLB), Kansas City Chiefs (NFL), and many others at lower levels.
Names and mascots which may have seemed harmless, even supportive, in the past now have a different complexion. This is a subject which won’t disappear by offering a review.
Weltch Media provides a range of communications services for sports teams, organisations and individuals.