BY HEAVY NEWS STAFF
For several years prior to the 2020 NFL offseason, controversy surrounding the Washington Football Team’s former nickname, “Redskins,” was commonplace. In July 2020, the team ultimately canned its former name and temporarily rebranded themselves as the “Washington Football Team.”
There were always calls to eliminate the name, which many activist groups found to be racist. Team owner Daniel Snyder, however, pointed to the heritage of the name and how it was meant to honor Native Americans. Polling of Native American groups found that the majority were also in favor of keeping the name.
In the end, the pressure eventually garnered the attention of corporate sponsors, and Snyder reversed his long-standing opposition to giving up the “Redskins” name, which the team had used for the past 87 years. The final straw that ultimately resulted in the name change was the wake of the social uprising that followed George Floyd’s killing in police custody in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Snyder was essentially forced to move on from the name after the team’s top sponsor, FedEx, threatened to cancel the remaining $45 million of its stadium naming rights contract if Washington didn’t change the name.
One of the rarely mentioned things in this whole rebrand discussion is that the Seattle Seahawks can also technically be called the “Washington Football Team” because they play in Seattle, Washington. With WFT delaying an official rebrand, they are heading into uncharted territory as they enter their second offseason without a new nickname. If the Seahawks were to object to Washington forgoing a permanent name, they might have a case to force them into a permanent rebrand due to the technicality. While some say this would be petty or a waste of time to pursue legal action, having a team take ownership of something that you technically have the rights to is a bigger deal than many may think. The Seahawks would have a case if they would pursue legal action and if WFT continues to use their current generic name, it closes the door to any possible rebrand the Seattle Seahawks may pursue in the future. We have seen several teams in professional sports rebrand from a city name to the state name, and WFT using this nickname for the foreseeable future could provide trouble down the road if Seattle were to pursue a rebrand.
The franchise didn’t immediately make a call on a new team name following the 2020 season, as they decided to continue to use Washington Football Team for the following season to give more time for fan opinions and executive decisions to come up with a suitable name for the future.
Terry Bateman, the franchise’s executive vice president and chief marketing officer, discussed the team taking their time in creating a new identity. “A rebrand like this is a 12- to 18-month process if you want to do it right…That’s one part of it. The other part is we didn’t want to rush it. We wanted to go slow. We wanted to do this right. Whatever we come up with is going to be the name for the next 80, 90, 100 years, I hope.”
Whatever the team decides, it will be starting a new chapter after the previous one ended in controversy. Another factor that will slowly set in is that the longer Washington forgoes a permanent rebrand, the more permanent “Washington Football Team” will become. A word that would describe this exact situation is epithet. An epithet is commonly defined as a word that’s commonly used in place of another word. In other words, in the absence of a formal new nickname, some will still refer to the team as the Redskins. And the longer WFT remains the official name, the longer that people will refer to the club as such even after a new name is implemented. This means the longer they continue to use the WFT nickname, the more normal it will feel and less likely that the rebrand will have a lasting impact on people. It also works the other way, as people still slip and call them the “Redskins” because they don’t have a new nickname yet.
WFT President Jason Wright spoke about the club’s name with ESPN’s John Keim, and he said it is not out of the question that Washington Football Team will become the permanent franchise name. “With this one, people are excited about the idea of a club having an identity rooted solely in the area it represents,” Wright explained. “Maybe it’s Football Team or it’s Football Club. We need to get underneath the why, so no matter what direction we go, we can pull on the heartstrings of folks.”
Wright said that whatever the final decision is, it will be made in time for the 2022 NFL season. They didn’t want to rush something in for 2021 and believe the extra year of preparation will allow the franchise to make the best decision for something that they hope will resonate for generations to come.
“The pressure is felt from the fan base to us,” Wright said. “[Snyder] feels it. I feel it. Our entire team feels it. This fan base deserves something that is thoughtful, that has taken their input into consideration very deeply.”
With trademarks and copyrights likely to take a few months, if not longer, to clear, the franchise needs all the legal issues taken care of to proceed with the official name change properly. This might be why Snyder has taken so long in coming out with a final decision. Although they have some serious concerns and legitimate reasons as to why they haven’t committed to the future name change, including trademarks, merchandise, and a general overhaul of the previous team name throughout facilities, the clock is ticking on a rebrand. It is only a matter of time before people get used to the current name, making a change to try and create another authentic brand very difficult in the long run. The franchise will also be sure to select an inclusive and welcoming team name, and coming up with one that will be widely accepted after 80+ years of a controversial nickname will be another hurdle they need to clear.