The Washington Redskins name controversy involves the name and logo of the Washington Redskins, a National Football League (NFL) franchise. Native Americans have been questioning the use of the name and image since the 1960s, while the topic has received widespread public attention since the 1990s. Native Americans demanding change include tribal nations, national tribal organizations, civil rights organizations, and individuals. The largest of these organizations, the National Congress of American Indians, counted the enrollment of its member tribes as totaling 1.2 million individuals in 2013. According to the American Psychological Association as of 2010, over 115 professional organizations representing civil rights, educational, athletic, and scientific experts have published resolutions or policies that state that the use of Native American names and/or symbols by non-native sports teams is a harmful form of ethnic stereotyping that promotes misunderstanding and prejudice, contributing to other problems faced by Native Americans.Public awareness of the issues has been growing based upon social science research on the harmful effects of stereotyping. The number of high school and college teams using the Redskins name has been declining steadily along with other Native American mascots. There is also a growing number of public officials, sports commentators and other journalists advocating a change.
The Washington, D.C., team is only one example of the larger Native American mascot controversy, but it receives more public attention because modern dictionaries define the name as derogatory or insulting and because the team represents the nation’s capital. The team headquarters is in Ashburn, Virginia and its home stadium, FedExField is in Landover, Maryland, both within the Washington metropolitan area. The name controversy was a factor in the team’s departure from Washington, DC in 1997 and remains so in discussions of the location of a new stadium.
As well as picketing and other forms of direct protest, opponents took legal action to cancel the trademarks held by the team. On June 18, 2014, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB) of the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) voted to cancel the Redskins federal trademark registrations, considering them “disparaging to Native Americans”. The cancellation was affirmed in 2015 by the judge in a first appeal by the Redskins. However, in June 2017 the Supreme Court of the United States came to a unanimous decision in a different case, ruling that not allowing disparaging names to be protected by trademark registration is an unconstitutional infringement of freedom of speech, thus voiding the legal basis for the cancellation of the Redskins’ trademarks.
Support for continued use of the name has come from the team’s owners, management, the NFL Commissioner, and a majority of fans, which include some Native American individuals. Supporters say that the name honors the achievements and virtues of Native Americans, and that it is not intended in a negative manner. Some, such as former team president Bruce Allen, also point to the use of Redskins by three high school teams, two on reservations, that have a majority of Native American students. Supporters have asserted that a majority of Native Americans are not offended by the name based upon a national poll by Annenberg Public Policy Center in 2004. In a commentary published soon after that poll, 15 Native American scholars collaborated on a critique that stated that there were so many flaws in the Annenberg study that rather than being a measure of Native American opinion, it was an expression of white privilege and colonialism. Specific criticism of the methodology includes the use of self-reporting to identify Native Americans, which violated the basic principles supporting the validity of public opinion polling. In May 2016, the Washington Post published a poll that duplicated the central question posed in 2004, yielding an identical result. However, a 2020 study at UC Berkeley found that a 49% of Native Americans found the name offensive, rising to 67% of those who said they regularly participated in native or tribal culture.