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Sports franchises face pressure to change names with Native American emblems

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fstop123/iStockBy: ERIC MOLLO, ABC News

(NEW YORK) — With America in the midst of a reckoning over racial inequality, more athletes are continuing to speak out across the sports world. Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray, Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield, and star running back Adrian Peterson are just a few of several athletes announcing they plan to kneel during the playing of the National Anthem this upcoming season. They are doing so in solidarity with former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who knelt during the playing of the national anthem to protest police brutality and social injustice in America.
 
Over the past week, there has been another reckoning in sports:  whether to change team names or logos that contain Native American emblems and stereotypes.

Major League Baseball’s Cleveland Indians announced they are considering changing the team’s name. Manager Terry Francona said he feels now is an appropriate moment for change.
 
The announcement comes a little over a year after Cleveland removed its “Chief Wahoo” logo—a cartoonish caricature of a Native American man that has long been considered racist.
 
It also came shortly after the announcement that Washington’s NFL franchise is weighing whether to change its team name, which is widely regarded as a racial slur.
 
Julian Brave Noisecat, who contributes to ESPN’s “The Undefeated,” writes that Washington’s NFL team’s name is a racial slur thought to reference Native Americans’ skin color and the bloody scalps of Indigenous people taken as bounty by white colonists.

The team’s owner, Dan Snyder, has vowed for years he would never to change the name, saying the term actually embodies honor and respect.
 
Protesters and advocacy groups have called for change for decades, but only in the face of mounting economic pressure did Snyder finally announce the franchise would consider a name change. Investors with major team sponsors Pepsi, FedEx, and Nike sent letters asking the companies to terminate their relationship with Washington unless it agrees to a name change.
 
Nick Martin is a member of the Sappony Tribe and a staff writer for the New Republic. He spoke with ABC News’ “Perspective” podcast this week about Washington’s and Cleveland’s statements.

Martin says Washington and Cleveland are not the only professional sports franchises perpetuating Native American stereotypes:

“It’s become a very normalized thing, which I think is commonplace with a lot of systems and forms of institutional oppression. These things… we don’t think of them in the moment as being particularly egregious because they’ve become so normalized in society.  And the idea that we would get rid of the Washington NFL team and keep the Kansas City Chiefs, it speaks to a certain hollowness that I think these kind of corporate social justice campaigns often involve.”
 
The Kansas City Chiefs, Atlanta Braves, and Chicago Blackhawks are among professional franchises that continue to employ Native American imagery on their jerseys, in their team names, and in cheers by fans.
 
They are not following the lead of Washington and Cleveland though. None of them announced they would be changing their team names, but Atlanta is reportedly considering no longer allowing “Tomahawk Chop” chants at games. The Blackhawks released a statement claiming their team name and logo symbolize an important Native American figure, so they do not want to remove any of it.

President Trump even weighed in this past week on Twitter, saying the names of Washington’s and Cleveland’s teams signify “Strength, not weakness” and are merely considering the change to be “politically correct.”
 
The president’s statement and the varied decisions of these franchises do raise questions: is it important to distinguish between the offensiveness of each individual team name, and does any of this iconography actually honor or respect Native Americans? And is saying that team names and logos honor native people merely perpetuate cultural appropriation and stereotypical depictions of Native Americans?
 
Martin says it is not that slippery of a slope: “If you’re saying our mascot, our team name is not as racist as Washington NFL team, that’s still an admission that it is racist.”

Washington’s head coach, Ron Rivera, told The Washington Post “it would be awesome” if the team changed its name. The National Congress of American Indians have long opposed the use of Native American stereotypical imagery in professional sports.
 
As professional sports franchises are choosing to re-examine these issues in the midst of America’s reckoning over race relations, they are faced with a new choice: will economic pressures determine what they choose, or will they listen to decades’ long calls from Native American advocacy groups to eliminate the use of these emblems?
 
Martin believes either way, America has already seen a shift in attitudes as this issue gets re-examined:

“What this moment, this kind of larger cultural reckoning has become is just kind of an impetus to say, ‘OK, you know, now’s the time to finally get rid of these things.'”

Listen to the rest of this past week’s highlights from Perspective here.Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.