With a name change apparently imminent, the Washington Redskins have an opportunity to reintroduce themselves to a region that’s grown weary not only of their racist nickname but also their never-ending carousel of coaches and ridiculous signings, their non-stop front-office drama, and, yes, their godawful record since Dan Snyder bought the team in 1999. My old pal Paul Lukas is the proprietor of Uni Watch, an excellent publication that obsesses over the finer points of sports team branding, so I called him up to ask how the team might reboot its whole identity.
Washingtonian: I want to get this out of the way at the beginning. You actually like the burgundy and gold?
Paul Lukas: I do. I always have. I think it’s a unique color combo that the team more or less owns, at least in the NFL. And yeah, it works for me. I was surprised to hear you say [in your email] they can get rid of that awful color combo.
So it doesn’t remind you of the color scheme for a mob wedding on Long Island.
Or the lounge in a brothel in Minsk.
It’s interesting. I’ll have to reassess it in the context that you’re suggesting.
Or the smoking jacket on a rich dead guy in a Poirot novel.
Ever since I was a kid, frankly, I always liked the color combo. Within the last decade, when they brought back the yellow pants, I loved that.
Okay, agree to disagree. But what have you learned from teams that have changed their names and identities?
Well there aren’t that many examples. In the NBA, the Washington Bullets became the Washington Wizards. So there’s another DC example right there. In Major League Baseball, the Devil Rays became the Rays. There are teams that changed their color scheme without changing their identity, without changing the team name. In fact, the Devil Rays did that themselves. They were originally black and purple and that weird rainbow gradation and then they briefly wore green, before they changed to the Rays and chose a boring blue color scheme. I always find it odd when a team basically tells its fan base, All right, you’ve been cheering for these colors, you know, A, B, and C, for all these years. And maybe you even have like a particular cheer that references those colors out loud. And you’ve been buying all this clothing in these colors and, and you know, what, forget about A, B, and C; we’re going to be X, Y, and Z.
But of course, the situation with the Skins is different because they’re going to change their name. And so I think it’s a real question: Do they keep the colors as a sort of gesture of continuity for the franchise and a way to sort of mollify fans who are pissed off about the name change? You can see both the pros and the cons of a sort of bridge approach of trying to maintain a connection to the existing brand. You can see why your current fans would like it and why it might not satisfy everybody else who’s been clamoring for change. And what you know, you’ll get criticized as doing a half measure or, you know, not really embracing the change. So it’s an unusual situation that they find themselves in, in that regard.
Especially considering the team’s terrible history with regard to race.
Yeah, it didn’t help that, you know, the team with the most problematic team name also had, at one point, the most problematic owner, right?
Yeah, the team has taken some steps to excise George Preston Marshall, but I think Dan Snyder would be high on a list of problematic owners today, even by NFL standards.
Yeah, Snyder, from what I hear, hasn’t exactly endeared himself to anyone. So there’s probably not a big reserve of goodwill in that regard. That factors into this, I would think; it means you don’t have as much leeway for maneuvering. You don’t have an assumption that you’re operating in good faith. You’re more likely to have an assumption that you’re operating cynically, and that colors people’s reactions to what you do and makes it more important that you better get it right.
And a name change is a massive undertaking, right? It’s not as simple as just changing the name on on the jerseys.
The uniforms frankly, will be the easiest part. They could literally just take the very small Redskins lettering off the chest of the jerseys, which is not a big design element. Take the decal off the helmet, slap a different decal on there and, boom, you’re done. If the season were canceled, which is still obviously a possibility, the one silver lining would be in Washington that it would give them more time to do all of this. I was surprised when they said we could do it maybe for the start of this season, which seems really fast.
I wouldn’t be surprised if they did a sort of transitional thing by by doing just what I said before, by taking the the decal on the helmet but not replacing it, not putting anything else up there, just leave it blank or leave the striping, which is very still very familiar and identifiable with the franchise. And either replace it with a generic “R” logo or just leave it blank, and then take the names off the chest of the jerseys, and just play this year as Washington, which is what a lot of people you know, have called them, myself included, for years now, people who don’t want to say the name and so they could they could say, This year, we’re just Washington and we’ll have it, we’ll have the new identity ready to go in 2021.
Are you rooting for any names?
I’m not. Whatever it turns out to be, it’s got to be better than the old one. And the main thing, I guess, it shouldn’t have any other Native American baggage or influence. The problem for me is not just that the word Redskins was a slur, it’s that I’m opposed to the use of Native American iconography and identity in sports in general. Because it’s cultural misappropriation. So if they call themselves, as some people are suggesting, the Redspears, that doesn’t work for me. Any logo that involves a feather—feathers are sacred to Native Americans, so you shouldn’t be using that. [After Lukas and I spoke, the Washington Post reported the team is unlikely to employ any Native imagery.]
Are there any any elements of their their old uniforms like to the past that you think that that they should bring back?
There’s old-school teams and new-school teams in terms of design, right? I like to call them Coke teams and Pepsi teams, Coke is the old school and Pepsi is more generationally driven, teams that kind of tinker with their look more often and have a more newfangled but forward-looking look. This team has always been a Coke team, an old-school team. It’s an opportunity if you’re completely redoing the identity, you can really reimagine yourself. Do you want to be a Pepsi team? Do you want to have a fancy newfangled number font like the Falcons have? Do you want to wear the same color jersey and pants for every game, again, like the Falcons, so it looks more like a superhero costume than a sports uniform? The Skins would never have done that in the past.
Your point about that opportunity is well-taken: This is a team that has really lost a lot of goodwill in this area pretty much since Snyder bought them. When I was a kid and when they were winning, it was all everybody was talking about.
It drove a lot of what led the discussion in the town right?
Absolutely. Since Snyder bought them they have alienated a lot of people here. Not to keep hammering on the color scheme, but would it be worth it for the team to reintroduce itself to fans by picking up on the color scheme used by other DC pro teams?
I’ve gotta say, I think the last thing the NFL and the American sports landscape in general need is another team wearing red, white, and blue. The idea of every DC team wearing red, white, and blue seems like a bit of a cliché to me, but I don’t live in DC. So what do I know?
That’s fair. I think people who live here are sensitive to clichés because the city is so caricatured. Whenever you see DC on television, there’s an establishing shot of the Washington Monument and the Mall. And then they film the rest of the show in Raleigh or Vancouver because who cares what the rest of the city looks like. If they named the team the Washington Monuments, for instance, that would be another capital city cliché.
I would say that name in particular is unlikely to happen just because we as a as a society seem to be reassessing the whole notion of monuments. You just imagine after every after every team loss, the headline would be “Monuments Toppled.” Ron Rivera, the coach, has gone out of his way to say that the new name should in some way salute the military, which seems to me like such a non sequitur.
The history of Native Americans and the US military has not always been a happy one.
Yeah. The Venn diagram of the overlap of those two subjects is not great.
Choosing a name like the Redtails also seems like a kind of half-hearted rebranding because the new name would evoke the old one.
I agree. I think I think that’s tricky territory there. It feels a lot like the old name. And so it seems just like a papering over of the issue.
This conversation has been condensed and edited.