July 16, 2020
As had been anticipated for the past few weeks, the Washington Redskins formally announced on Monday that they will no longer be called the Redskins. The news came ten days after the team began a formal review of the name issue on July 3. See the rather terse official announcement at redskins.com. The most likely replacement names are the "Warriors" or the "Red-tails" (referring to the World War II Tuskegee airmen), but "Pigskins" (referring to the vaunted offensive linemen of the 1980s known as the "Hogs") is another distant possibility. I suppose the team song "Hail to the Redskins" will be banned in the future, but it may depend on the new name.
It is important to note that majority franchise owner Dan Synder vowed several years ago that he would "NEVER" change the Redskins' name. His change of heart was quite obviously the result of financial pressure from corporations that do business with the Redskins, most notably Federal Express, which threatened to terminate the naming rights contract of what used to be called Jack Kent Cooke Stadium. (See below.) Unfortunately, these circumstances will taint any future efforts by the Washington NFL franchise to promote social justice causes. Of course, this will become much more significant if the National Football League season actually does take place this fall. Many high school and college teams are canceling much or all of their 2020 schedules, so NFL games this year are by no means certain. They only have six weeks to change uniforms, stadium logos, stationery, etc. Unlike baseball, the very nature of football involves constant, close physical contact with opponents, and the risk of a single player infecting two entire teams in the course of a single game may be too much to take.
To me it's obvious that the name "Redskins" was never intended as an insult, but it was not exactly a polite reference to the Native American population either. Most sport team names invoke tough or fearsome qualities, sometimes roguish in nature. The way I figure it, 14 of the 32 current NFL team names refer to human beings based on occupation, size, geographical region, history, ethnicity, etc. (including 2 that refer to Indians), another 14 are derived from animals (including 4 birds), and the remaining four are hard to classify: Bills, Browns, Jets, and Chargers. As for Major League Baseball, 19 of the 30 current team names seem to refer to human beings (if you include the Angels), 8 are derived from animals (including 3 birds), 2 refer to hosiery colors (Red Sox, White Sox), and the Rockies refer to a mountain range.
All that got me to wondering how often pro sports team names have changed in the past, and the table below is what I came up with. To summarize the findings, twelve of the 31 name changes resulted from having moved to a new city, reflecting a desire to "start fresh" with a new identity. (Note that 6 of the 13 MLB franchise relocations since 1901 did not result in the name being changed; see the MLB franchises page. If you count the Athletics being called the "A's" during their early years in Oakland, that would be just 5 of the 13.) Five the the name changes are unknown to me. Two of the baseball team names (Highlanders and Astros) were based on the stadium they were playing in, and four of the football team names (Bears, Pirates, Redskins, and Jets) were related to the "host" MLB team with which they shared the facilities. Finally, team names reverted to old names seven times, most often after just a few years with a new name that didn't catch on. The two ambiguous cases are the Washington Senators/Nationals (1905-1955), when most people just stuck to the old name on an informal basis, and the Oakland Athletics/A's (1968-1986), the latter of which is merely an abbreviation of the former.
Other teams being targeted include the Cleveland Indians (who have already committed to changing their name), the Atlanta Braves, the Kansas City Chiefs, and believe it or not, the Texas Rangers! (Before the Civil War, the Rangers were responsible in part for rounding up escaped slaves.) As far as I can tell, the only other team name that was ever considered offensive was the Cincinnati Reds; during the Red Scare of the 1950s, being called a "red" was equivalent to being called a traitor. (Say, maybe the Redskins could simply be called the "Reds," without using any Native American symbols!) Any future name reversion appears highly unlikely with the Redskins, however.
|Year||League||City (or state)||Old name||New name||Reason for change|
|1902||AL||St. Louis||Brewers*||Browns||Moved from Milwaukee.|
|1903||AL||New York||Orioles*||Highlanders||Moved from Baltimore to Hilltop Park.|
|1903||AL||Cleveland||Blues||Naps #||To honor star player Napoleon Lajoie.|
|1905||AL||Washington||Senators||Nationals @ #||Seeking fresh start after poor seasons.|
|1913||AL||New York||Highlanders||Yankees||Moved down to Polo Grounds.|
|1915||AL||Cleveland||Naps||Indians #||In memory of Louis Sockalexis.|
|1922||NFL||Chicago||Staleys||Bears||Moved from Decatur, IL to Wrigley Field.|
|1932||NL||Brooklyn||Robins||Dodgers||Fans had to dodge trolleys.|
|1933||NFL||Boston||Braves||Redskins||Moved from Braves Field to Fenway Park.|
|1934||NFL||Detroit||Spartans||Lions||Moved from Porstmouth, Ohio.|
|1941||NFL||Pittsburgh||Pirates||Steelers||To identify with steel workers.|
|1941||NL||Boston||Bees||Braves||Reverted to old name.|
|1945||NL||Philadelphia||Blue Jays||Phillies||Reverted to old name.|
|1946||NL||Cincinnati||Red Legs||Reds||Reverted to old name.|
|1954||NL||Cincinnati||Reds||Redlegs||Reverted to earlier name; Red Scare?|
|1954||AL||Baltimore||Browns||Orioles||Moved from St. Louis.|
|1956||AL||Washington||Nationals @ #||Senators||Officially reverted to the original name.|
|1961||NL||Cincinnati||Redlegs||Reds||Reverted to original name.|
|1961||AL||(Minnesota)||Senators*||Twins||Moved from Washington to Twin Cities.|
|1963||AFL||New York||Titans*||Jets||Soon to share stadium with MLB Mets.|
|1963||AFL||Kansas City||Texans*||Chiefs||Moved from Dallas.|
|1965||NL||Houston||Colt 45s||Astros||New stadium: the Astrodome.|
|1968||AL||Oakland||Athletics||A's||Moved from Kansas City.|
|1970||AL||Milwaukee||Pilots||Brewers||Moved from Seattle.|
|1972||AL||(Texas)||Senators||Rangers||Moved from Washington.|
|1987||AL||Oakland||A's||Athletics||Reverted to old name.|
|1996||NFL||Baltimore||Browns*||Ravens||Moved from Cleveland.|
|1999||NFL||(Tennessee)||Oilers||Titans||Moved from Houston two years earlier.|
|2005||NL||Washington||Expos||Nationals||Moved from Montreal.|
|2020||NFL||Washington||Redskins||TBA||Anti-racist public sentiment.|
SOURCES: ESPN Information Please Sports Almanac, 1999, etc.
# : from sportsteamhistory.com
* (asterisk): This team name was later used by a different MLB or NFL franchise.
@ "Nationals" only appeared on Washington uniforms in 1905 and 1906, and "Senators" remained a widely-used name; the name was officially reverted in 1956.
NOTE: This table excludes the temporary mergers of some NFL teams during World War II.