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5 sports team name changes the Washington Redskins can learn from

After the cancellation of their trademark by the TTAB, the Redskins are at a crossroads. What can they learn from previous teams that changed their names?

Image courtesy of the Washington Redskins

Not long ago, the biggest matter the Washington Redskins had to worry about was whether star quarterback Robert Griffin III would recover from offseason surgery. Now, the team has taken a loss, not on the gridiron, but in the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board. The team’s trademark was cancelled, and, though owner Dan Snyder is likely to win on appeal, he is faced with a decision. Should he bow to public pressure and change the name, or stick with it? Well, perhaps Snyder can learn something from other teams that have changed their nicknames. Let’s take a look at a few examples and see what Snyder can glean from them.

 

NEXT: Off to college

 

Stanford Indians

 Stanford University

Image courtesy of Stanford

Stanford University had a problem similar to the one that Snyder is dealing with now. In 1930, the athletic department adopted the name “Indian” for the school’s sports teams. But by 1972, American Indian students had expressed their displeasure with the name and the school president decided it was time for a change. Eventually, Stanford settled on the name “Cardinal,” in reference to the most prominent color in team uniforms. This was one of the earliest examples of a sports team choosing to change a nickname that was found offensive by a specific group.

  

NEXT: Out of this world

 

St. John’s Redmen

 St. John's

Image courtesy of St. John's

Some would say, however, that certain organizations have had a tendency to go overboard when addressing public concerns. One oft-cited example is St. John’s University. Originally, the school chose the nickname “Redmen” because of the color of the team’s uniforms (similar to the Syracuse Orangemen). But by the 1960s, it had embraced the idea that the name could refer to American Indians, going so far as to adopting a mascot in tribal dress. In the mid-90s, the school decided to change its nickname to Red Storm, which prompted some to wonder if it had relocated from New York to Jupiter.

 

NEXT: Seeing Red

 

Cincinnati Reds

 Cincinnati Reds

Image courtesy of Cincinnati Reds

Sometimes, fervor about a name can go too far and end up self-correcting. The Major League Baseball team in Cincinnati started out as the Red Stockings, so named because of their uniforms (early team nicknames did not involve a ton of thought, apparently). That name was eventually shorted to the Reds, which seems innocuous enough… except during the “Red Scare” of the anti-communist McCarthy era. During the 1950s, when America was paranoid about the “Red Menace,” the team changed its name to the Redlegs. Eventually, when the paranoia died down, the team went back to the Reds.

 

NEXT: Number 1 with a bullet

 

Baltimore Bullets

Washington Wizards

Image courtesy of Washington Wizards 

Here’s a team in Snyder’s own backyard that presents an interesting tale of name changing. The Baltimore Bullets moved to Washington, a city that is known for a great deal of gun crime. Apparently, the name did not sit well with team owner Abe Pollin who, according to his son Robert, decided to change the name of the team after the assassination of his close friend Yitzhak Rabin. Of course, the Bullets were near the bottom of the league in merchandise sales at the time, so changing the name to Wizards certainly didn’t hurt in that area.

 

NEXT: Runnin’ with the Devil

 

Tampa Bay Devil Rays

 Tampa Bay Rays

Image courtesy of Tampa Bay Rays

The Redskins have always sold a lot of merchandise, and they have never had a prolonged stretch as a terrible team – unlike the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, who were the laughingstock of the American League for years. The team decided it could start anew with a name change, wiping out its history of bad baseball and at the same time removing the satanic ties from its nickname. It worked to some extent, as the team has had a much better record since being redubbed The Rays.

Of course, there are still many teams in sports that have American Indian-inspired names (like the Cleveland Indians, Atlanta Braves and Kansas City Chiefs). None are under as much scrutiny as the Redskins who, though likely to retain the right to their trademark, face the crucible of public opinion. If Dan Snyder does decide to make a name change, though, it will be interesting to see if other teams follow his lead. 

Managing Editor

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Rich Steeves

Richard P. Steeves is Managing Editor of InsideCounsel magazine, where he covers the intellectual property and compliance arenas. Rich earned a B.A. in English Literature...

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