New rules, new names: The recent impact of the Black Lives Matter movement in sport

The killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota in late May has had a profound impact through communities across the world. The sports community is no exception. The message that Black Lives Matter has been ubiquitous across professional sports in both Europe and North America.

Protest becomes mainstream

Kneeling has become synonymous with support for the movement. The gesture originates from San Francisco 49ers’ then-quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who knelt in protest during the U.S. national anthem played before National Football League (NFL) games in 2016. Whereas Kaepernick and other athletes previously courted controversy with the gesture, sports have returned from their Covid-induced hiatus displaying impromptu and organised gestures in support.

Some sports that restrict protests or “political messages” by participants have reassessed their regulations. The National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) has rewritten its rules that required all team members to stand during the national anthem. The German Football Association (DFB) regulations (mandated by FIFA) prohibit players from displaying political, religious or personal statements. However, the DFB opted not to discipline those players that displayed anti-racism messages on the re-opening weekend of the Bundesliga season. The DFB emphasised that these players were “standing up for values that the DFB also stands for and always advocates”.

Diversity in recruitment

It is well-established that professional sports clubs in Europe and the U.S. frequently see a huge disparity between the racial diversity of their players and racial homogeneity of their coaches, managers and executives.

The “Rooney Rule” in the NFL is often cited as the model approach to improve equality of opportunity for racial or ethnic minority candidates in applying for coaching and management positions in sports clubs. However, it had become widely accepted that the effectiveness of the rule has diminished in recent years. The NFL responded in May 2020 with broader requirements.

On the other side of the pond, the English Football League (EFL) introduced the “EFL Recruitment Code” in 2019, which requires that at least one racial or ethnic minority candidate be interviewed for a first-team manager position. However, the players’ union, the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA), recently criticised the obvious flaw that this rule only applies when clubs choose to produce a shortlist and interview more than one candidate. By contrast, the NFL approach is to mandate a shortlist and interview process. In England, no reform has been publicly tabled yet.

Native American team names

Discussions surrounding Confederate iconography have prompted reconsideration of the presence of Native American imagery in U.S. sports. This is not a new discussion. A number of U.S. sports clubs and college sports teams have changed nicknames, logos and mascots as they have come to be recognised as disrespectful to Native Americans. For example, St John’s University changed its sports nickname from the Redmen to the Red Storm in 1994. Conversely, some teams have been endorsed by local tribes. Florida State University has had its nickname, the Seminoles, and its mascots endorsed by the Seminole Tribe of Florida.

The most conspicuous team in this discussion has been the NFL franchise, the Washington Redskins. The franchise name dates back to 1933, even predating the Superbowl era of the NFL. Yet this name is widely recognised – including in the Merriam-Webster dictionary – as an offensive term towards Native Americans. The current majority owner of the franchise, Dan Snyder, has always insisted that the name would never change.

This discussion has made its way into the U.S. courts. Applicants have historically been denied trademark protection by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) once their name was deemed to "disparage … persons”, such as a particular racial or ethnic group. This restriction originates from the Lanham Act of 1946, which serves as the main U.S. federal trademark law. For this very reason, the Washington NFL franchise had its trademark protection disputed in the courts for many years, including being cancelled by the USPTO in 2014.

Loss of trademark protection would have no impact on the right of the franchise to maintain its name. But anyone could then legally produce unofficial merchandise using the franchise’s name and logo. Therefore, lack of trademark protection may have produced the financial impetus to rename the franchise. However, a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2017 in an unrelated case (Matal v Tam) found that a law denying trademark protection for disparaging terms breached the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protecting freedom of speech. This settled the law. The Washington NFL franchise was assured trademark protection.

It is the recent shift in public opinion that has instead proved fatal to the Redskins name. A number of prominent sponsors – including FedEx (which sponsors their stadium) – asked the Washington NFL franchise to change its name. It has been reported that this was prompted by letters signed by 87 investment firms and shareholders (worth a combined $620 billion) asking companies to cease sponsorship of the franchise if its name remained unchanged. Some retailers have stopped selling team merchandise. Prominent politicians have remarked that the franchise, whose current stadium is based in Landover, Maryland, will not be permitted to move to a new stadium in the Washington D.C. city limits with its current name. The franchise has now confirmed that it will change its name and logo. It will play the 2020 season known simply as the “Washington Football Team”.

There may be wider consequences for U.S. sports teams. The Cleveland Indians, a Major League Baseball (MLB) franchise, has announced it is reviewing its name. The franchise already removed its logo of Chief Wahoo, a caricatured Native American figure, in 2018. Other franchise names exist with references to Native Americans, such as the Kansas City Chiefs (NFL), the Chicago Blackhawks (National Hockey League (NHL)) and the Atlanta Braves (MLB). This same discussion has also made its way to England and the sport of rugby union. The Exeter Chiefs have come under pressure to change its name, logo and mascot. The club has decided to retire its mascot Big Chief but go no further. They all distinguish their names as honouring rather than denigrating Native Americans, however.

Comment

While the message that Black Lives Matter is in no way new, the killing of George Floyd has brought the discrimination encountered by African-Americans, and Black people more generally, more acutely under the global spotlight. In the U.S., it has also created a platform for further discussions about deeply-ingrained prejudices against the Native American community. This year being the 100th anniversary of the start of the Negro Leagues in U.S. baseball only emphasises how sport has continually changed alongside society. Changes have been made in weeks that had previously been resisted for years.

It remains to be seen how far Black Lives Matter activism will influence athletes’ and fans’ decisions. Some have already queried whether Historically Black Colleges and Universities will soon experience a boon in recruiting top prospects in U.S. college sports in place of the traditional sports powerhouses. These questions of governance have the potential to suddenly throw an organisation’s public standing and financial projections into disarray – and at a time when finances are already stretched. Whether in response to athlete expectation, public sentiment, sponsor requirements or investor demands, decision-makers will need to contemplate the new public attitude to Black civil rights when making decisions in the management of their team, league and sport.

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