One of the weird side effects of being a journalist is you start to see a lot of strange ads online. Just doing some cursory reporting on a single story about the Trump White House gives you a search history that, via the magic of Google’s algorithm, leads to a bunch of ads for MAGA gear. So it was no surprise that, not so long after the Washington’s NFL team dropped its former name—and not so long after I did a Google dive for info about that name’s unsavory history and unhappy loyalists—my browser appeared to decide that I was one of those unhappy loyalists, and possibly in the market for unsavory reminders of the former name.
Click on the ad for a classic-sports-gear vendor called Vintage Brand and you’ll find something remarkable: The branding of the past few decades—that is, the branding that team owner Daniel Snyder just agreed to drop—was actually a model of decency by comparison with some of the iconography from their more distant past. Just click through from the home page to the Washington page (unlike the sites for brands like Nike, the Vintage site still labels the page with the squad’s now-disused moniker). Among the wares on display are this beauty, deploying what purports to be a 1963 logo:
There’s also this one, apparently from 1952 and less gross, but also lacking any team name to even remind folks that the wearer is not just a person walking around with a stereotyped illustration of a Native American across their chest:
The vintage look, of course, is one way a fan can show their true-blue devotion. But there’s a funny thing about the gear in question: It doesn’t exactly conjure Washington’s glory days. The 1963 squad finished 3-11. The 1952 team was 4-8. By contrast, there were a few years where the team went with more subtle branding—a red “R” on a yellow helmet. Somehow, it’s not been part of any of the vintage-gear come-ons I’ve gotten.
A few days later, on Facebook, a site called Smack Apparel caught up with me. Where other sites sell things that at least resemble the team’s one-time look, the stuff on this site is explicitly 2020—and, in some cases, explicitly about being unhappy about the name change that happened in 2020.
It’s the tricky thing about doing a name change in 2020: Even in an area of society as trademark-bound as pro sports, the gatekeepers have less control than ever over what logos people wear. Scour eBay and you’ll find newly-produced t-shirts for Air Zaire, the airline of a country that hasn’t existed for over 20 years, targeted to the airline-enthusiast market. So it’s no surprise you’ll find a wide array of official- and unofficial sports-fan gear. Thus there was, even before the renaming, an impressive array of Washington football team merch geared towards people who didn’t like the name. And now that the name is done, there are clothes aimed at folks who want the whole world to know they miss it.
What it portends, for local football-fan culture, is that the culture war over the name won’t end with the decision to drop the old one, or even with the decision to adopt a new one, whenever that is. The stands will be full of faithful in shirts announcing their loyalties, not just to team but also to name. And, especially since NFL teams clean up on vintage-gear sales, you’ll still have to pick sides.