A Native American group’s efforts to rename Washington’s NFL team back to its original “Redskins” moniker is gaining traction online, spurred by an opposition to cancel culture.
A Change.org petition started by the Native American Guardian’s Association (NAGA), a nonprofit organization based in North Dakota, surpassed 101,000 signatures on Tuesday. The petition, which began June 21, calls for a restoration of the team’s original name for the benefit of “the team, its loyal fan base and the legacy it represents.”
The franchise’s name has been a subject of criticism, both before and after temporary and permanent name changes.
After it was announced the “Redskins” name would be replaced in 2020 due to a backlash elicited by calls of systemic racism, the team became known as the Washington Football Team for about two years before a rebrand to its current Commanders name was officially announced in February 2022 and went into effect for the following season.
“The name ‘Redskins’ carries deep cultural, historical, and emotional significance, honoring the bravery, resilience and warrior spirit associated with Native American culture,” the NAGA petition states. “It was never intended as a derogatory or offensive term but as a symbol of respect and admiration.
“Changing the name abruptly disregards the positive legacy that the Redskins name has built over the years and disorients the passionate fans who have invested their emotions, time and unwavering support in the team.”
Sheila Steinmark, a marketing expert and CEO of the firm MOGXP, told Newsweek via phone that the Washington franchise must make up its mind for the long term because the issue continues to tick off portions of its consumer base.
“It’s a marketing nightmare for the franchise,” Steinmark said. “You have to be sensitive to heritage, but when you are trying to please everyone, you are bending to societal pressures. You get labeled as insincere and inauthentic.
“When that happens, people fall out of love with your brand. You lose brand recognition, lose public persona, and have to look at the brand one way and go back the other way.”
Aside from the name, the franchise recently entered a new era following the exit of its longtime owner Dan Snyder—who purchased the team in 1999 for approximately $800 million. Snyder sold the team in July to a group led by businessman Josh Harris for $6.05 billion, the highest price ever paid for a sports team.
Last month, ESPN’s Don Van Natta Jr. said on The Rich Eisen Show that Harris is weighing different options regarding the franchise’s future.
“I think there’s a pretty good chance of that to erase any part of the Snyder legacy, to have a complete do-over,” Van Natta said. “I would not be surprised at all, Rich, to see a name change and a complete rebranding.”
Magic Johnson, the Hall of Fame basketball player and limited partner of the Commanders, told NBC‘s The Today Show last month that “everything’s on the table” regarding the team’s future, including the name.
NAGA, established in 1944, has advocated for Native American heritage in the public and cultural sphere.
Aside from the petition, the group more recently issued a “demand” letter to the Commanders organization to reclaim the Redskins name. It has been compared to a Bud Light-style boycott, in reference to the beer brand’s partnership with a transgender activist that led to decimated sales.
It’s part of the organization’s “Educate Not Eradicate” national advocacy campaign against cancel culture. They have claimed that getting rid of the former name was a “denial of U.S. history and the Native American components of the founding of America and U.S. Constitution.”
“All Americans … should be eager to stand up for the dignity of EVERY AMERICAN that is under assault in today’s increasingly nonsensical culture wars,” the letter states in part. “This is a ‘LINE IN THE SAND’ pledge that reinforces undeniable history of the NATIVE AMERICAN assisting the founding of the United States with Native American principles used by the Founding Fathers in the United States Constitution.”
It also alludes to protecting Americans’ First and 14th Amendment rights “and not be targets” of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) and an Environmental, Social & Governance (ESG) “cancel culture environment.”
Polls of Native Americans regarding the team name have been rare and inconclusive.
The Washington Post published one in 2016, reporting that 90 percent of about 500 respondents were “not bothered” by the Redskins name. But in 2020, a UC Berkeley study found that at least half of more than 1,000 Native Americans surveyed were offended by the moniker and Native American mascots in general.
The culture wars are heavier now than when the franchise changed the Redskins name in 2020, Steinmark noted. Any future major rebranding would result in a large financial price, in terms of the brand itself and those who have become dissuaded with the organization’s leadership in recent years.
The new owners should also apologize to their loyal fans and acknowledge the errors of past and present, she said, and part of that would include financially supporting different causes associated with Native American groups and tribes, for example, that do feel slighted.
“It would be foot in mouth to go back [to the Redskins name],” she said. “It makes them look disingenuous. Rebrand and apologize, give money everywhere to support causes. … Changing the name would upset someone on either side. It needs to be about the culture that created the situation [in the first place].”
A public relations spokesperson for NAGA told Newsweek via email that NAGA’s “demand” letter speaks for itself.
Newsweek on Tuesday reached out to the Washington Commanders via email for comment.