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Renaming the Redskins

The Washington Redskins were back in court this week, hoping to overturn a U.S. Patent Office decision that canceled the team’s trademark, because some find it offensive.  That controversy prompted business students at Virginia Commonwealth University to research and choose new names for DC’s professional football team. 

Whatever happens in court, VCU Business Professor Kelly O’Keefe says Washington has got to come up with a new name, because native Americans are not the only ones who think calling a team by skin color is offensive.

“The question is not whether they will make a change but when they will make a change.  Any time you have a brand that offends a significant portion of the audience, you have a business problem.”

And O’Keefe says plenty of teams have made the switch.  Baltimore, for example, lost the name as well as the team when the Colts left for Indianapolis.

“A lot of people were really upset about that, but now they have the Baltimore Ravens, and they love it, so the key is to replace the name with something even better that people can embrace.”

And New York fans happily adopted a new name, even though their team stayed put. 

“The New York Yankees was originally the New York Americans, shortened to the Yanks by a newspaper reporter who didn’t want to write out Americans, and that moniker caught on, and then over time they became the Yankees.”

So he challenged two teams of students to come up with a new name for DC’s football team.  Job one – survey the fans. 

“You have to get their perspective – what they love about the team, what they wouldn’t want to see go.  Maybe what they don’t love about the team, and what they’d love to see changed, but you really have to build this from a fan perspective.  This isn’t something you’re doing to the Redskins.  It’s something you’re doing for the Redskins.”

The first group found fans feared looking weak.  They didn’t want the Redskins to back down, so the students came up with a strong name, drawing from America’s early history.

“They came up with the term The Rebels, focused more on the rebellion that created the United States and really a rebel against tradition.”

The other team looked ahead for a name that would not only solve the Redskins’ problems but would suggest a way forward for the National Football League.

“There was an opportunity for one team in the NFL to transcend all of the troubles that the NFL as a whole has had – to lay out a new direction for the sport.”

They suggested Washington’s team be called the Navigators.  Then, O’Keefe says, the students had to consider some functional issues.

“Is the name easy to say?  Can you turn it into a chant?  Will it look good in a logo?  Can you create a mascot around it?”

And, of course, will it offend anyone?  Once the new names passed those tests, the students crafted marketing campaigns, logos and mascots for the Washington Rebels and the Navigators.  O’Keefe e-mailed the Redskins to offer these resources but got no response.  He figures the owner and his managers are busy in court, but will, eventually, come around.  

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief
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