Removing the R-word

A court decision takes away trademark protection for an NFL team with a disparaging name. But that’s not enough.

Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports/Reuters/File
Washington Redskins head coach Jay Gruden speaks as general manager Bruce Allen looks on during a press conference in January.

It’s not really about sports. It is about commerce, but that’s not the crucial point. The controversy over the name of the professional football team in the nation’s capital is really about when the time will be right to make a change for the better.

Yesterday a federal appeals board ruled that the name the Washington Redskins was disparaging to native Americans and thus was no longer entitled to trademark status. The National Football League (NFL) team will appeal, and even if the ruling is eventually upheld, it may take years to go into effect.

Even then the Redskins still would not be prevented from using the name or selling merchandise with the name and logo on it. While the federal government would no longer protect the trademark, the team could still sue anyone who tried to use its name or logo in civil court.

So the legal decision is a narrow one. But it made a crucial point: The term is an ethnic slur and the team and the NFL must eventually realize it has to go.

Native Americans have called for the team to change its name for decades – to no avail. And so far the wheels of legal justice have ground slowly.

The Washington team has used the Redskins name for more than 70 years. Today "Redskins" generates deep loyalty among many longtime fans.

But times change. And words matter. Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling was caught in April making racist remarks about African-Americans. The resulting controversy made him anathema to the National Basketball Association (NBA) and has plunged him into a furious legal battle to maintain his ownership of the team.

Today dictionaries routinely cite “redskin” as an outdated and offensive term. In recent years numerous high school and college teams have changed names that disparaged native Americans. President Obama and half the US Senate have expressed their public desire to see the Washington team change its name. And The Seattle Times recently joined The Kansas City Star and The Oregonian as news organizations that won’t use Redskins in sports reporting (the Times will still use the word when needed in reporting on the controversy).

The Washington team can make a case that it wants to protect a lucrative trademark. The team has been valued at $1.7 billion, making it the third most valuable franchise in the NFL. By being located in the nation’s capital it will always be one of the most visible NFL teams.

But there is precedent. Washington’s NBA team long ago decided that its name at the time, the Bullets, was an inappropriate moniker to represent the team and city. The team is now called the Wizards.

Redskins owner Daniel Snyder says he’ll never change his team’s name. But a new name could actually provide a financial bonanza. With a change,  souvenirs and jerseys with the Redskins logo would become collectors’ items and sell out quickly. Then fans would need to purchase T-shirts, pennants, blankets, and other paraphernalia with the new team logo.

In its trademark decision, a patent court turned up the heat on the NFL and the Washington team. But it will take more persistent public pressure before they see change as in their own best interests.

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