This fall, after months of coronavirus restrictions, professional sports in the United States have returned to something close to normal (MarketWatch). MLB playoffs are in full swing, Lebron James won his fourth NBA championship last week, and the NFL regular season continues every Sunday. But as a large portion of the United States undergoes a racial reckoning, professional sports are working to adjust accordingly.
In July, the owner of the football team formerly known as the Washington Redskins conceded to pressure from corporate sponsors (including Pepsi, Nike, and FedEx) and agreed to change the team name to the Washington Football Team (Washington Post). However, as Suzan Shown Harjo (a Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee activist who has rallied against the Redskins name for more than 40 years) noted, one would hope that financial pressure from investors would come before a state-sanctioned killing, not after (Washington Post).
• Get educated about the specific histories behind racist sports team names. Start with this Texas Tribune article unveiling the violent history behind the original Texas Rangers.
• Use social media to put pressure on these teams and team owners to change their problematic team names: Texas Rangers, Braves, San Francisco 49ers, and Kansas City Chiefs.
“All of a sudden…they’re saying, ‘Change the name,’ and what’s the difference—George Floyd was murdered before the world and corporate America woke up,” said Harjo (NY Times).
Though Indigenous activists like Harjo have been pushing against racist sports teams long before FedEx and Nike, only now that white, corporate America has expressed interest in racial inequality as “corporate activists” have popular sports teams undergone renewed scrutiny (NPR).
Even names that seem benign to most people, like the San Francisco 49ers, have a racist history. As a Mexican-American living in California, I know how this state that was once part of Mexico was originally Indigenous land (Library of Congress). Through celebrating and maintaining focus on California’s white colonial history, the 49ers are one of many teams that exemplify the erasure of Indigenous people through celebrating the “glory” of white colonial history.
The historical psyche of California’s Bay Area is built around the California Gold Rush (PBS). In January 1848, James Wilson Marshall discovered gold flakes in Northern California, near modern-day Sacramento. A few days after the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, that land effectively passed from Mexico to the United States. The ensuing gold fever led to an international mass migration to the Bay Area in 1849, hence the “49ers” (History.com).
For many in California, the legend behind this period of economic growth is the legend of the American frontier: a mythology that rugged white settlers moved west to build and cultivate this land by the skin of their teeth (The Conversation). Accordingly, the San Francisco 49ers mascot is “Sourdough Sam,” a goofy pick-ax wielding, Levi-loving Paul Bunyan-looking character seemingly on the hunt for errant treasure.
However, this seemingly innocuous character and narrative ignore the fact that the Gold Rush happened in conjunction with the genocide of Native Californians. While 1849 was “historic” for white settlers, it was disastrous for the tribes who had settled in the Bay Area 10,000 years prior (Culture Trip). The white miners, with help from the state and federal forces, murdered up to 16,000 Indigenous people of various Bay Area tribes. Today the Muwekma Ohlone tribe is recognized as a conglomerate of “all of the known surviving American Indian lineages aboriginal to the San Francisco Bay region” (Muwekma Ohlone).
Peter Hardermann Burnet, California’s first governor, told legislators in 1851 that “a war of extermination will continue to be waged between the races until the Indian race becomes extinct…the inevitable destiny of the race is beyond the power or wisdom of man to avert” (History.com). Local and state militias receiving state funding systematically killed and even scalped Native Americans. Nearly 80% of the 150,000 Native Americans who lived in California pre-gold rush were wiped out through disease or killings (KCET.org).
The 49ers are only one of many professional (and semi-professional) American sports teams that reference violence against Native peoples or directly use Indigenous imagery in their team names. In the NFL, the Kansas City Chiefs are being pressured to change their name (USA Today), and in the MLB, the Braves, Indians, and Rangers have been the subject of discussion. When Kansas City played San Francisco in Super Bowl LIV in January, writer Vincent Shilling accurately referred to the game as the “Genocide Bowl” (Indian Country Today).
Learning more about the history of racist sports team names brings light to the reality of the United States being built at the cost of—or on the backs of—Indigenous, Black, and Brown Americans. Changing team names isn’t about obscuring or erasing our history. It’s about refusing to glorify genocide and the gross characterization of Indigenous peoples. It’s completely possible to acknowledge a dark history without venerating false idols in sports. (Yes, I’m looking at you, Sourdough Sam).
Yet there is growing evidence that change can happen slowly. Besides the Washington Football Team, other organizations have also changed their team names or mascots in recent years. The Cleveland Indians removed “Chief Wahoo,” a racist caricature of a Native American man, from their jerseys in 2019 (Global Sport Matters), the Chicago Blackhawks recently banned headdresses at home games (CNN), and, as of late September, the University of Illinois is moving closer to choosing a mascot to replace “Chief Illiniwek” (Chicago Tribune).
In 2013, when asked about removing the slur from the Washington Redskins’ name, owner Dan Snyder callously claimed, “We’ll never change the name. It’s that simple. NEVER—you can use caps” (USA Today).He was wrong. Seven years later, he changed the name. And if we can educate ourselves, keep the pressure on these teams, and advocate for change, more teams will follow suit.
• Many professional sports teams, such as the Kansas City Chiefs, have names or mascots that revere genocide and racial violence.
• The San Francisco 49ers are named after the gold miners of 1849 who, with help from the state, killed thousands of Indigenous residents.
• We can create change. In 2013, the owner of the Washington Redskins claimed he would never change the team’s name. In 2020, bowing to public pressure, the name was changed to the Washington Football Team.