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Two fans of Edmonton's CFL team in the stands watching a team practice, while wearing team merchandise.
Some sports teams in the United States and Canada have finally abandoned the use of racist team names and logos. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson)

Applying corporate pressure to change racist team names isn’t enough

The NFL team in Washington, D.C., officially announced on July 13 it would be retiring its racist name and logo. Washington had developed its brand in 1933, which means the entire franchise has been cashing in on racism for 87 years.

We are witnessing the ripple effects taking root in Canada. Edmonton’s CFL team announced that it’s finally changing its name. The Edmonton team adopted its name in 1949.

Read more: Edmonton finally drops the Eskimos — and may my grandchildren never hear the E-word again

These were major victories for Indigenous activists and their allies, who have been working strategically since the 1960s to rid the sporting landscape of such symbols. Not only is Washington the “third-highest grossing team” in the NFL, its political reach is enormous. The corporate sponsors and their investors who have helped to make this franchise insanely rich are the “Who’s Who” of American industry.

The effort to rid our sporting landscape of racist mascots is important. It’s well known that these monikers are harmful to society because they reduce ethnicities and cultures to stereotypes, which is a form of dehumanization. The American Psychological Association even issued a public statement in 2005, calling for teams to immediately terminate their usage because it undermines the educational experiences of all youth, in addition to creating an unwelcoming and often times openly hostile learning environment in schools.

Long time coming

Despite all the evidence and resources devoted to this cause, it took 15 more years of advocacy propelled by a global pandemic that exposed gross structural inequality in the United States and the Black Lives Matter movement, which literally set parts of that country on fire, to force one team to change.

I’m wondering what comes next. Toppling more names and logos?

Suzan Shown Harjo, a leading proponent for ending Indian sports mascotry, reminded the public shortly after Washington made its announcement that the work is not yet over: “We’ve ended more than two-thirds of these obscenities and now have only 900 or so left to go.” Her point was clear. Everyone needs to sustain the pressure to capitalize on the momentum gained from Washington.

Still, it’s worth pointing out that in both cases, Washington and Edmonton bowed to economic pressure and not morally persuasive arguments or evidence showing that it was the right thing to do. A group of 87 investors with combined assets worth US$620 billion put pressure on Nike, FedEx and PepsiCo to cut ties with the Washington team if the owners did not jettison their problematic symbols.

Money talks

Edmonton team sponsors Belairdirect and SportsInteraction (run out of the Indigenous community of Kanawake, Que.) did the same. It might be obvious that the Edmonton team does not play financially in the same rarified space as Washington. However, this shows that investment firms and shareholders are worried about their brand commitments to diversity and inclusion. Their direct involvement was the tipping point.

With that kind of power and influence, is finding new names and logos enough?

Washington and Edmonton offer real-time learning opportunities for the millions of people watching these racist brands topple. They get us talking about anti-racism in sports and society more broadly. They show us what it takes, and how much effort is required, to bring about change in sports. Equally important, they should lead to conversations about how sports teams, corporate sponsors and investors can be better partners for racialized communities.

Jesse Wente, director of Canada’s new Indigenous Screen Office, which supports the development of Indigenous screen content and storytelling, expressed dismay that it required corporations, and not heightened social awareness, to inspire the change, saying: “It’s in these moments that it actually becomes unprofitable or too costly to maintain that racism … it’s sad that we can’t have these arguments on human terms.”

Pushing change

The events over the past two weeks have shown us what can be done when investors and corporations take social justice seriously by working with racialized communities to push for systemic change. Corporate welfare and cronyism (the WE scandal being the latest example) is alive and well in Canada, further entrenching the gap between the rich and everyone else.

At the same time, Canada’s social safety net is being eroded as governments continue to divest responsibility for social programs to wealthy third parties and corporations, further hollowing critical programs like childcare, elderly care, education, housing and health.

Sports teams can do more than change a team name and logo. This is made abundantly clear in Power Play: Professional Hockey and the Politics of Urban Development, which provides a detailed behind-the-scenes look at the building of Rogers Place, the present home of the Edmonton Oilers.

The industry leaders who benefit in myriad ways from their political relationships are the same people who can affect policy and legislation that benefits racialized people and fund grassroots organizations led by racialized groups.

For many of these groups, and especially for Indigenous people, sports participation is much more than a form of entertainment or a fun pastime: it’s about using sport as a lever to support their youth, cultures and communities.

The recent campaign by the Winnipeg Jets and the Manitoba Moose hockey teams get us one step closer to meaningful change. They worked with graphic designer Leticia Spence, from Pimicikamak Cree Nation, to design Indigenous-styled logos for merchandise with all proceeds going to local Indigenous youth programming.

As the movement to rid sports of racist mascotry continues, what we need is a parallel public discussion about how to channel corporate attention into working directly with racialized communities to create systemic change that is meaningful to the millions of Canadians whose lives collide daily with racism.

The work to rid sports of racist mascots isn’t over. Neither is the work to encourage investors to do more. The American landscape remains filled with them. In Canada too, including at least one bearing the same name that Washington just retired.

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