Redskins trademark ruling: Another Washington political football?

By canceling the 'Redskins' trademark on the grounds it is disparaging, the US Patent and Trademark Office has turned Washington pigskin unity into one more bone of contention.

Nick Wass/AP
Washington Redskins helmets sit on the field during an NFL football minicamp in Ashburn, Va., June 17, 2014.

The Washington Redskins used to be one of the few forces for political unification in D.C. Republicans and Democrats alike could cheer or bemoan the fortunes of the local football team on the field.

That may not be true any longer. The fight over the implications of the team’s name has seen to that. Many area Democrats view “Redskins” as a racial slur that must be changed. Many – but not all – local Republicans see it is an honored moniker with only gridiron connotations.

This conflict was brought into focus by Wednesday’s ruling by the US Patent and Trademark Office, which canceled the “Redskins” trademark on the grounds that it is disparaging.

When the news broke, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D) of Washington interrupted a debate on the Senate floor to hail the decision. “So many people have helped in this effort, and I want to applaud them,” said Senator Cantwell, who helped organize a letter endorsing a name change that was signed by 50 Senate Democrats and sent to NFL offices earlier this year.

Contrast that with the reaction from Larry Hogan, the Republican gubernatorial candidate from next-door Maryland. The ruling “should offend anyone concerned about constitutional limits on government power and free speech,” Mr. Hogan said Wednesday.

Yes, we’re being a bit loose here in our definition of “area resident.” But the fact is that politicians elected elsewhere live here (usually), settle their families here (often), and have local as well as home-state sports loyalties. One of the biggest all-time Redskins fans was Richard Nixon – though there is little evidence he ever actually called plays for the team, as was widely alleged while he was in office.

And the Washington metro area is large, encompassing as it does the city itself, northern Virginia, and D.C.’s Maryland suburbs.

Plus, there’s no doubt the whole “Redskins” thing has become politically polarized nationally. Senate majority leader Harry Reid also hailed the decision, warning team owner Dan Snyder that the writing is on the wall, and it’s time to change the name.

Conservatives, meanwhile, are incensed. On his show Wednesday, Rush Limbaugh pointed the rhetorical finger directly at the White House. “All this stuff is coming out of the executive branch. All of this, well tyranny,” he said.

Well, we don’t know about that – the suit the Patent Office ruled upon was brought by private citizens years ago, long before Obama took office. The members of the appeals board which made the decision aren’t presidential appointees.

Furthermore, the scope of the decision is limited. This isn’t the government stripping owner Snyder of his right to use the “Redskins” name. What the Patent Office said was that the federal government will no longer register that name as a trademark in conjunction with an NFL team. State laws, as well as common law, still provide the Washington team with extensive protection against outsiders producing bootleg “Redskins” merchandise for their own profit.

Plus, the federal registration is still in place, pending the completion of the appeals process, which could take years.

The immediate impact is upon the team’s image and public relations. That’s not negligible, particularly for an organization that’s not exactly producing a juggernaut on the field.

In terms of partisan sniping, perhaps the most interesting fight at the moment is over what should come next – what Snyder should name the team instead of you-know-what.

Over at left-leaning Talking Points Memo, they’ve suggested the “Washington Taxations without Representations.” (D.C. has no floor vote in Congress, meaning local voters have no say on tax bills.)

At the right-leaning National Review, they’ve got a list that includes the “Washington Red Tapes,” and the “Washington Shutdowns.”

But our favorite comes from Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten. In our view, it perfectly captures the bureaucratic ethos.

“I repeat: Redskins should change name to ‘The Washington Department of Football Services’ ” tweeted Weingarten Wednesday.

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