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Since the local NFL team announced it would review its racist team name earlier this month, one option has risen to the top as the odds-on favorite replacement: the Red Tails. And now that the team has officially begun the process to “retire” its outgoing name, the homage to the Tuskegee Airmen is officially in the mix.
That is, those who protect the legacy of the storied World War II African American pilot squadron are keeping the “Red Tails” name on the table for Dan Snyder and the NFL team to pick.
Tuskegee Airmen, Inc. (TAI), the Alabama-based non-profit founded in 1972 that oversees the history and image of the historic group, said Monday afternoon in a statement that it “would be honored and pleased to work with the organization during and after the process should this name be adopted.’’
One of the Tuskegee Airmen Inc.’s 56 chapters is in the District, at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling. Two more are in Petersburg and the Tidewater area of Virginia. The group has strong ties to, but not direct affiliations with, Tuskegee University, Moton Field (the original training ground, now a National Historic Site), and several projects, programs, and foundations that carry the name Red Tail.
(An important distinction: it is two words, not one, according to the organization’s literature.)
Declaring itself open to the idea was no small obstacle to satisfying what long-time area followers were supporting as the new name in multiple recent polls, dating back to at least the July 3 declaration that the team would “review” a name change.
It’s one thing to throw around the idea of Red Tails, another thing entirely to see if the human beings who comprised the Red Tails nearly eight decades ago, their families, and the stewards of their legacies wanted to be part of it.
After all, the core of the objection to the previous name was that, despite the years of insistence that it “honored” and “respected” Indigenous people, they made it very clear that it did not.
It is yet something else to make sure the team didn’t trade the exploitation of one target of racism and oppression for another. The marketing and merchandising of the new identity will reap billions for the team and the NFL, and the meaning of the Tuskegee Airmen to American and Black history can never be treated carelessly or allowed to be used as a cash grab.
A TAI spokesperson left the possibility of trademarks and negotiating the rights to the name up in the air in an email to City Paper. Early reports after the team’s Monday announcement indicated that trademark talks were what prevented it from revealing the new name then.
Still, the spokesperson says TAI “stand(s) ready to work” with the organization if necessary.
As the debate over what name to use grows, some speculative logos have floated around social media, including one by Mark Crosby, who works in the Parks Division for the city of Madison, Wisconsin and is a die-hard Green Bay Packers fan. He finished second in a 2013 national logo design contest with a rendition of the Red Tails plane in burgundy and gold.
“I’ve refined it a little since then,” Crosby tells City Paper.
Part of the motivation in designing the logo, he says, was the attachment Washington football team fans have for their traditions. So was his own long-time love of World War II history, especially its aircraft, and fairly quickly “Red Tails came to me,” Crosby explains.
“The Red Tails are a great story of people proving they belong, especially when people were telling them they didn’t,’’ he says. “They’re a group of people that deserve honor … Tuskegee’s not very close to D.C., but what better place to have them honored?”
Plus, as it turns out, it fits the imperative (albeit an unexplained one) by head coach Ron Rivera that the new name “continue(s) the mission of honoring and supporting … the military.”
Neither the team nor the Tuskegee Airmen ever approached him about his design, Crosby says, and he has never approached either of them, although a relative of an Airman once reached out to him with a positive reaction.
He is aware that someone who designs logos as a hobby has almost no chance of having their work become the official signature of a professional franchise with worldwide corporate partners and is aware that franchises have been either accused or caught stealing such designs without compensating the creator. (Right up the road in Baltimore, a lawsuit by designer Frederick Bouchat against the Ravens over their original logo in the mid-1990s snaked through the courts for 15 years before his final appeal was rejected in 2013.)
Still, seeing the name, with or without his design, replacing the old one would be extremely satisfying to Crosby. “They would do a complete 180 from using a total racial slur, and flip the script entirely,’’ he says.
There is no fear of his creation creeping into old, unwelcome territory, he adds: “I’m not putting blackface on the logo.’’
If and how the concept becomes reality is a discussion that the guardians of the Red Tails’ legacy are prepared to have.