The nickname for Washington’s NFL team goes back to the franchise’s origins in Boston, when it was known as the Braves in 1932—the team played a Braves Field, home of Boston’s National League baseball team—and was changed to the Redskins when the team moved to Fenway Park the following year. The team moved to Washington in 1937.
The nickname for Cleveland’s baseball team goes back to 1914, when the franchise known sometimes as the Blues, Bronchos, and Naps (after star player Napoleon Lajoie), sought a new name from sportswriters. They were called the Indians because one of the team’s best players was a Native American of the Penobscot tribe, Louis “Chief” Sockalexis.
That is the history of the monikers, a history that is facing a new reckoning as teams reconsider the racial and cultural implications of their club mascots. On Monday, President Donald Trump weighed in, lamenting the fact that both the Indians and Redskins are considering a shift toward lest insensitive identities—throwing in a dig at a political rival in the process.
Trump wrote on Twitter: “They name teams out of STRENGTH, not weakness, but now the Washington Redskins & Cleveland Indians, two fabled sports franchises, look like they are going to be changing their names in order to be politically correct. Indians, like Elizabeth Warren, must be very angry right now!”
It is unclear why, exactly, Trump felt that “Indians” would be very angry about the potential change.
Strong Reactions to Trump’s Support of Redskins and Indians
Trump’s tweet drew strong reactions, especially as momentum to remove racist imagery from sports franchises grows.
Former NBA player Rex Chapman tweeted:
Another former NBA player, Jason Collins, wrote:
Still others pointed out that Trump had tweeted about the Redskins’ name before, in 2013, when President Obama was in support of a name change. At that time, Trump suggested Obama should have more important things to do than worry about the name of Washington’s football team.
Corporate Pressure has Redskins Contemplating Name Change
Despite Trump’s objection, for both the Redskins and Indians, serious moves are afoot to come up with new names, and the teams have acknowledged those moves.
The push started with the Redskins, who have long resisted pressure to change the team name and imagery under owner Daniel Snyder. In 2013 and 2014, Snyder and the Redskins were the subject of an intense campaign from Native American groups to give the nickname an overhaul. Those pleas fell on deaf ears.
But at the end of last week, FedEx, which owns the naming rights of the team’s stadium and whose CEO (Fred Smith) is also a Redskins minority owner, publicly asked the franchise to change the team name.
AdWeek reported, too, that shareholders representing about $620 billion in capital asked major companies like Nike, FedEx and PepsiCo to cut ties with Washington until the name is changed. That forced action from Snyder and the franchise.
The Redskins released a statement shortly thereafter.
“In light of recent events around our country and feedback from our community, the Washington Redskins are announcing the team will undergo a thorough review of the team’s name,” it said. “This review formalizes the initial discussions the team has been having with the league in recent weeks.”
Redskins Coach, Indians Manager Support Changes
The fight to change the name of the Indians has not been as high-profile, but the Cleveland franchise has faced pressure to change the team’s imagery, too. The Indians retired the cartoonish “Chief Wahoo” after the 2018 season, but a push to change the team’s name altogether goes on.
In the wake of the Redskins’ announcement, the Indians also released a statement:
We are committed to making a positive impact in our community and embrace our responsibility to advance social justice and equality. Our organization fully recognizes our team name is among the most visible ways in which we connect with the community.
We have had ongoing discussions organizationally on these issues. The recent social unrest in our community and our country has only underscored the need for us to keep improving as an organization on issues of social justice.
Despite the opposition from Trump, the name changes have gotten some support from prominent figures in each organization.
Redskins coach Ron Rivera said of the potential change, “If we get it done in time for the season, it would be awesome.”
Indians manager Terry Francona had a similar outlook for a new name in Cleveland. “I think it’s time to move forward,” he said.