Naming | Seen & Heard

Washington’s New NFL Team Name: Touchdown? Not.


I’ve heard some of the candidates floated to replace the Washington R———s, a name so offensive to people I respect that I will no longer repeat it. Red Wolves, Redtails, Warriors, a few others. Some of these possible replacements have the benefit of not referencing Native icons or stereotypes. For powerful reasons set forth by Kevin Gover, director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, any such candidate that fails in this regard, no matter how well-intended, should be discarded outright.

I’m not impressed with any of the candidates I’ve heard thus far. They feel like what you get when you grasp for a name. Sure, technically speaking, many of them might work. I can envision some being adopted without too much fuss and then going on to become a serviceable handle for a pro football franchise. While any new name for such a high-profile, passionately embraced public entity is bound to have its detractors, I can envision some of the current crop of candidates surviving the inevitable birthing pangs a new name endures.

But when I consider the rationales used to support these candidates, I can’t help but find them tenuous or forced. Somewhere, I can hear a decision maker saying, “Sure, okay, that solves the problem, doesn’t it?”

The Red Wolves? “Um, yeah! Wolves are fierce and they’d make a killer logo, bro. And aren’t they a thing? Down in the Carolinas or somewhere?”

The Redtails? “Riiiigght. The nickname for the Tuskegee Airmen, a group of seriously badass Black WWII aviator dudes. Isn’t it cool how we could go from dishonoring one group of color to honoring a different group of color? Plus, history.”

The Warriors? “I hear what Mr. Gover is saying but c’mon, this is classic. And it doesn’t have to mean Native warriors. We could be, like, the archetype of all warriors everywhere. Plus, if it’s good enough for the Golden State Warriors, we’re cool, right?” Note: As of a few days ago, this was reportedly the leading contender.

I’m not buying. I’m with Mr. Gover on “Warriors,” which feels like the naming equivalent of a sidestep in any event. As for the others, why hang on to “red”? To hearken back to…what, exactly? The team color? Not necessary to call that out to retain it.

Under normal circumstances, naming a new football franchise should be relatively easy (except for the trademarking, maybe). Football is such a deeply rooted American pastime that millions intuitively understand its basic naming conventions. Heck, a fair number of folks have actually named teams themselves, starting as peewees.

That said, it’s not clear what kind of criteria fans or anyone working on behalf of the team are using to guide the effort, aside from not repeating the obvious mistake of the past. A winning name might come from the collective semi-conscious, but it’d be nice to see folks in the management office take a truly deliberative approach. After all the consultation that’s said to be going on, it’d be nice to see management provide, say, three finalist options, any of which it could live with, along with a forum for public comment before making the final call. (From the fact that news reports say one candidate is already undergoing legal review, it sounds as if the train has left the station on this. Current plans call for the new name to be announced this coming Monday.)

Daniel Snyder, the majority owner of the team, has made it clear he isn’t moved to rename by the stirrings of social conscience but by the threat of a sponsor revolt. Given this, it’s almost certainly too much to ask of this naming exercise that it serve as a true learning experience for management or for the league or for the public. But, look, the Washington, D.C. NFL team is far from the only team in need of a rethink due to the same kinds of racism that have led to this moment. (Texas Rangers, Cleveland Indians, Chicago Blackhawks, Atlanta Braves and plenty of college and high school team names come to mind—including that of my own high school.) Perhaps others will look at the present effort, if it ends up coming up short, and ask how they themselves might do better.

What do I wish for the team? A name that doesn’t just solve a problem but also points a direction. A name that does everything fans expect of a solid team name and then also just a bit more. A name that feels smart, not expedient. A name that strikes the general public as being every bit as good as the old name was bad. A name that suggests that, as a society, we’ve learned something. A name with the potential to make every fan proud from the get-go.

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