Courtland Milloy: Washington's sports teams have been a treat lately, except the one with that 'R' name

The Washington football team has been in slow decline for nearly three decades. Now it's losing attendance, losing more games, more talent and the last modicum of respect. There is no escaping the curse of that team's name.

Courtland Milloy.png
Courtland Milloy

Watching Washington's professional sports teams in action lately has been a real treat, for the most part.

The Nationals are now tied in National League Division Series after facing elimination. The Capitals were ranked second in their division heading into Tuesday night's game. D.C. United will enter the upcoming Major League Soccer playoffs as a fifth seed.

And the Mystics could be crowned WNBA champions Tuesday night.

Then there are the Redskins, the team with an 0-5 record and a throwback name steeped in stereotype and stained with genocide.

The Oxford dictionary describes the word "redskin" as "dated, offensive." Surely there are names more worthy of a team that calls the nation's capital its home.


So what better time to come up with a new name than now?

The Washington football team is "starting over" after firing Coach Jay Gruden, a Washington Post sports headline read Monday, "but in what direction are they headed?"

That's the eighth coach gone since Dan Snyder bought the team 20 years ago. And, as another Post headline put it, "his successor is already destined to fail."

That's because Snyder has pretty much tried everything he knows. He's changed coaches, managers, quarterbacks, PR agents, you name it. Changed everything - except himself and the name of the team.

Why not really start over? Acknowledge that times have changed and hold a naming contest. Pick one that doesn't disparage other human beings. How difficult can that be?

You want warriors for mascots, we've got every branch of the military to draw on right in our own backyard. The Air Force has a fighter plane called a Wart Hog. Perfect. The Navy has SEALs. Either one could beat a Cowboy.

You want a bird? Philadelphia has what should have been our eagle. But the D.C. region has the next biggest thing: the turkey vulture. Scary ugly, yes, but slogan-friendly: Every opponent is just roadkill for the Washington Vultures.

The point is the team needs a new name. And almost anything beats the old one.


I know how hard it must be for some to give it up. After the Super Bowl victory against the Miami Dolphins in 1983, I was among a half-million fans celebrating in downtown D.C., whooping it up with mascot Chief Zee, singing that fight song with reckless abandon.

In a region deeply divided by race and class, the Washington football team was a rare unifier. If only for a few hours each week, the burgundy and gold could make you forget about being black or white. No small accomplishment.

There had been objections to the team's name back then. But with Coach Joe Gibbs taking the team to the postseason seven times, winning four NFC championships and three Super Bowls out of four appearances from 1983 to 1992, the protests were easily drowned out by the cheers.

Then, in 1992, an American Indian woman named Suzan Harjo filed a lawsuit against the NFL, arguing that the Redskins violated trademark standards against the use of disparaging names and imagery.

From a mountain of legal briefs filed in support of the lawsuit, we learned that Native American schoolchildren were being adversely affected by these degrading sports mascots. Since 1970, more than 4,000 schools have discontinued the use of Native American mascots and changed the names of their sports teams.

In response to an Annenberg poll in 2004 that said 90% of Native Americans "are not bothered" by the team name, 15 Native American scholars collaborated on a critique that stated that there were so many flaws in the study that rather than being a measure of Native American opinion, it was an expression of "white privilege" and "colonialism."

Gibbs retired in 1993, his departure lamented as "the end of an era." It certainly was the end of the team as we knew it. And because of what Harjo's lawsuit had revealed, it should have been the end of the name as well.

The late team owner Jack Kent Cooke insisted that "the name was never intended to offend anyone." During negotiations over a stadium location in 1993 with then-D.C. Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly, Cooke patted her on the behind. No offense intended then, either, in his view.


"He was hoping we would reach a deal, and this was his insulting way of suggesting job well done," recalled the former mayor, who publicly criticized Cooke after the incident as a "bully billionaire."

That Cooke didn't intend for the name or the pat on the behind to be offensive was beside the point. Acts of disrespect that might have been overlooked in the past were no longer being overlooked.

Snyder has vowed to keep the name, claiming it is a "term of honor." He isn't being a bully billionaire. Just a clueless one.

The Washington football team has been in slow decline for nearly three decades. Now it's losing attendance, losing more games, more talent and the last modicum of respect. There is no escaping the curse of that team's name. The days of our region being unified by it are over.

Change the name. Or lose the team.

Courtland Milloy is a local columnist for The Washington Post, where he has worked since 1975. He can be reached at


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