I’m perennially surprised at the names of the Washington Redskins and the Cleveland Indians, which are outrageous and somehow still haven’t changed.
I wondered which of the teams had the more racist name, and whether or not they were the most racist pro sports names in the US.
I’m excluding college-level teams, minor-league teams, Canadian teams, and teams outside the NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL, and MLS.
I’m going by name alone, and not considering mascots, logos, or promotional material.
I’m not claiming any authority on this matter. This is my entirely subjective take on the relative racism of the names. I don’t have strong feelings about any of these teams (except the honorable mention). I’m also not Native American.
The names are racist because they’re patronizing and dismissive. To use the name of a people this way is a clear cultural indicator that their identity is not to be taken seriously. It matters what the power relations are: a team called the White Anglo-Saxon Protestants might also have a racist name, but the impact of that would be less significant in this cultural climate.
Honorable Mention: The New York Yankees
This name kept standing out. “Yankee” is an often-pejorative term, used to describe people from a specific (if malleable) geographic location. I’ve been called a “yank” pejoratively, both in good fun by friends and otherwise. The team’s usage of it could be considered a proud reclaiming of the term, if you even wanted to take the matter that seriously.
Sliding By: Kansas City Chiefs
Though it refers to “indian chief”, I’m not certain the name is racist. “Chief” could be compared here to “Kings”. This may be a name with a racist legacy rather than being racist in itself.
Dodgy Territory: Chicago Blackhawks
Tricky. The team is named after the US Army Division. Naming one of your divisions after a subjugated foe is a clear act of appropriation; naming a team after the division is murkier. The Chicago Blackhawks try hard to clarify, using the stylized face of a Native American as their logo (the infantry division’s logo is a black hawk). This name is ambiguous at best.
Almost a Contender: Atlanta Braves
Unlike “chief”, “brave” has a specific racial component. But, with some reference to a role, it’s not quite as racist as the top two.
So Close: Cleveland Indians
Less pejorative than its rival, barely. Edged out because you could perhaps find ways to look at it so it wasn’t horrifyingly insulting.
Unconscionable: Washington Redskins
Horrifyingly insulting. Does anyone use the term “redskin” anymore? With “Indian”, someone might not know “Native American” is the preferred term, but “redskin”? Congratulations, Washington: your football team has the most racist name in major US pro sports.
This doesn’t make the team or the fans racist—it just means the name is racist.
If you let the Chiefs and Blackhawks slide, that’s three teams. Changing the names of just three teams would alter the cultural discussion about Native Americans, removing from common usage terms that enforce their status as a subjugated group. It’s hardly most important race issue out there, but it’s both a no-brainer and low-hanging fruit.