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Sports Teams Consider Changing Team Names Amid Racial Reckoning


For a long time, there have been calls for certain pro sports teams to change names that many view as racist. Change has been slow to come by. But there is now a renewed debate. Frank Morris with member station KCUR reports on what makes this moment different.

FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: Lots of Native Americans loathe the name of Washington's NFL team, the Redskins.

CRYSTAL ECHO HAWK: Yeah, it's a dictionary-defined racial slur - full stop.

MORRIS: Crystal Echo Hawk, who heads the advocacy group IllumiNative, says a 30-year stalemate with the team suddenly broke when Washington's corporate sponsors demanded a new name, and the team agreed to consider it.

ECHO HAWK: What changed was the murder of George Floyd. And it changed everything in this country.

MORRIS: That includes customer preferences. Just this week, Walmart and Amazon joined others and stopped selling the team's merchandise. Mike Lewis, a marketing professor at Emory University, says the Washington team name now has become more of a burden than a benefit. And he says it's just the beginning.

MIKE LEWIS: The Indians second, the Chiefs probably third. The Braves and the Blackhawks don't take a lot of heat for whatever reason. But at this point, I think all sorts of team names are now in play.

MORRIS: The Cleveland Indians have launched a formal name review. That leaves primarily the Kansas City Chiefs, the Atlanta Braves and the Chicago Blackhawks hockey team. The three teams all claim to venerate Native Americans. Crystal Echo Hawk says the names Braves, Blackhawks and Chiefs alone are not racial slurs. But they do carry heavy baggage.

ECHO HAWK: But the imagery that gets associated with those names - it's the racist fan behavior when a fan paints their face red. That is blackface. Blackface is wrong. We - I think most people in the country get that now.

MORRIS: Then there's the tomahawk chop, where fans cleave the air while belting out a cartoonish war chant. It's a staple at Chiefs and Braves games. And many find it offensive. While a number of universities and high schools have dropped Native American names in recent years, pro teams haven't. For one thing, those names - brands, if you will - are very lucrative. Joe Favorito is a veteran sports marketing consultant who lectures at Columbia University. He says changing sports names is complex, but now it's smart.

JOE FAVORITO: I think going forward, if you are a brand that wants to engage in a conversation with anybody below 35, cause marketing and social responsibility are first, second or third when you're looking at return on investment now. That was not the same four months ago.

MORRIS: And while the tide may be turning, retiring legacy sports names can still be rough for fans.

GREG O'NEAL: I'm a die-hard Chiefs fan. I am a die-hard Chiefs fan.

MORRIS: Greg O'Neal (ph) is 62. He lights up talking about the Chiefs. He's followed them passionately his entire life. Bring up the idea of changing his team's name, and O'Neal slumps in his chair, looks crestfallen. But he's also squarely against racist fan traditions.

O'NEAL: As a black man, the name should be changed. You know, I have to look at it like that. But, you know, I'll still be a fan. I don't care who they named. They could be named anything. I'll still be a fan of my home team.

MORRIS: The Kansas City Star editorial board is trying to spark a conversation over renaming the Chiefs. In Chicago, Dan Bernstein, midday host at sports radio 670 The Score, says that for many fans, the Blackhawks name is less of an issue than its logo.

DAN BERNSTEIN: It's a cartoon face of an Indian. That's what it is. And there are many people who believe, not OK. The people aren't mascots.

MORRIS: In Atlanta, the Braves say they're reviewing the tomahawk chop at games but keeping the name, at least for now. Author Joe Posnanski, a lifelong Indians fan who writes for The Athletic, says until recently, changing the name of his team for him was almost unthinkable.

JOE POSNANSKI: One day, it feels impossible. And the next day, it feels inevitable. And I think that's what is happening now.

MORRIS: And it does feel like an inflection point, with big-money corporate backers joining activists to demand change.

For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris in Kansas City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Morris
Frank Morris has supervised the reporters in KCUR's newsroom since 1999. In addition to his managerial duties, Morris files regularly with National Public Radio. He’s covered everything from tornadoes to tax law for the network, in stories spanning eight states. His work has won dozens of awards, including four national Public Radio News Directors awards (PRNDIs) and several regional Edward R. Murrow awards. In 2012 he was honored to be named "Journalist of the Year" by the Heart of America Press Club.
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