Fans and human rights activists, many of them Washington-area Jews like Silver, have been striving for this kind of change for years. Silver said he and his organization applied public pressure on the team to change its name, collecting petitions at Metro stations and then delivering them to the team once a year. Silver said at one point they had collected about 11,000 petitions over a five-year period.
For Adas Israel Synagogue member Steve Rabinowitz, Feb. 2 can’t come soon enough. The team’s name for indigenous people has outraged him for years.
“We couldn’t imagine a team being called the Brooklyn Jews,” Rabinowitz said. “It would be inconceivable to see logos of Jews in black hats and payot. It would be insane. And yet, this is something that we still do recently in American sports.”
Rabinowitz said he finds it “amazing” how long some icons take to disappear from popular culture.
“Good riddance to it,” said Rabinowitz, referring to the team’s previous name. “Of course I’m curious and interested to know what the new name is going to be. I want to be a fan of the team. They make it hard because they stink but I like to see them succeed.”
Local documentary filmmaker Aviva Kempner felt “total joy” when the name change was announced two years ago. Kempner directed “Imagining the Indian,” which took aim at sports mascots that depict Native Americans.
“I was happy that there would no longer be — at least in my city — a name so insulting to Native Americans,” Kempner said.
As a Jew, Kempner said she knows what it is like to be a member of a minority that is negatively stereotyped.
“No sports team should have a name that’s insulting to any members of the population,” Kempner said. “Sports are supposed to unite a community, not separate it.”
Few things have been as polarizing in the Washington sports scene than the previous name for the Washington Football Team. It had been increasingly criticized until team owner Dan Snyder announced in July 2020 the team would drop the name.
Snyder’s Jewishness has regularly come up in debates over the name. In 2013, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, in defending Snyder’s refusal to change the name, said it was “a real mistake to think that Dan, who is Jewish, has a lack of sensitivity regarding somebody’s feelings.” Days later, the satirical newspaper The Onion used an anti-Jewish slur in skewering Snyder.
In 2015, Rabbi Jonah Pesner, who heads the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center, said the mascot “blatantly mocks a culture that struggles to survive.”
A year earlier, The Anti-Defamation League signed a letter initiated by Native American groups to NFL players urging them to speak out for changing the name of the Washington Redskins.
Fran Kritz, a freelance health care writer, said she “always roots for the home team.” She said it has been distressing to see Washington Football Team owner Dan Snyder be intractable about changing the team’s name until recently.
“Ecclesiastes tells us that ‘a good name is better than fragrant oil,’ and one explanation is that one’s name should be met with delight,” Kritz said. “Anyone who prays for justice should hope that the new name is met with favor and that the change begin with an apology for the hurt it has caused.”
Both Kempner and Silver are unsure of what they want the new permanent name to be, but they know that they don’t want anything with the word “red” in it. And they don’t want anything that connotes the heritage of indigenous peoples.
The six finalists are: Armada, Presidents, Brigade, Redhawks, Commanders and Defenders.
Rabinowitz said he just wants a name and mascot he and his two children can be proud of.
“I want to root for them,” he said. “I’d like a name and a mascot that I can root for and that my kids can wear.”