The professional football franchise now residing in Washington, D.C., has been known as the Redskins since 1933. But after the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s punitive action last week, the team’s shameful exploitation of a racial slur may be coming to a just and overdue end.
If the courts uphold the government’s cancellation of team trademarks, as they should, then the exclusive value that the team draws from the use of its nickname and logo will be quickly diluted by copycat jerseys and beer mugs flooding the market. Long before that happens, it would be nice to think that team owner Daniel Snyder would simply do the right thing for the right reason — and that’s to move toward a new and less hurtful brand. But as anyone who follows the National Football League (NFL) knows, money is what matters most. And as soon as Snyder’s revenue from apparel and other items begins to fall, a new name suddenly will seem like a good idea.
This may take a few years. The team’s lawyers were still pretending last week that this latest ruling is a rerun of a similar judgment in 1999, one that a court overturned four years later.
But times have changed. No longer are just Indians offended, but a wide swath of Americans have come to regard the nickname as little different from the N-word or other common slurs that have been hung on Latinos, Chinese, Jews and others. Should we be comfortable with teams called, let’s say, the Detroit Rag Heads or the Brooklyn Wops? Clearly not. Recent trademark cases have discouraged Heeb magazine from placing its brand on sports apparel and an Asian-American rock band from marking itself as the Slants.
The Washington team has plenty of apologists. Some use “football tradition” as an excuse. Others claim that Indians themselves came up with the name or that the name was originally a term of endearment. All of that is nonsense. There’s more than a little irony in proclaiming a sports tradition based on the subjugation of a real tradition. That the Redskins name has endured for 81 years is a mark of shame, not tradition. And even if its origin in the 1700s was well-intended, the name quickly became a slur and remains more noxious than Braves, Chiefs, Blackhawks and other sports identities drawn from indigenous people.
Those nicknames, a sad reality, should also disappear because, as this page has previously argued, a great many Indians find them offensive and disrespectful. In many ways, Indians have little left of their culture except their identity, and many are emphatic about not wanting that identity expropriated by the white community, especially for commercial use. Many universities — including Stanford, Dartmouth, Marquette, Illinois, North Dakota and Minnesota-Mankato — have understood this and have shed the offending mascots and mock identities. Washington’s NFL team, and other pro franchises, should do likewise.
The NFL is known to be sensitive about its image and its brands. It claims to stand for fair play and good sportsmanship. It frowns on taunting, for example, or kicking a defeated player when he’s down. If that’s true on the football field, it should be true in the front office.