The never-ending dispute over whether the National Football League’s Washington Redskins should change their name is heating up again. Early in May, D.C. City Councilman David Grosso introduced a resolution asking the team to change its “racist and derogatory” name, an effort that even drew the attention of the team’s star quarterback, Robert Griffin III, who posted a cryptic tweet about the “tyranny of political correctness” that, it turned out, was in reference to efforts to change the title of the franchise he represents.
But Grosso’s non-binding resolution is the least of the Redskins’ worries. The big threat to the team and its owner, Dan Snyder, is the federal Trademark Trial and Appeal Board, which in February heard a case petitioning it to classify the word “Redskin” as a derogatory slur: as such, it wouldn’t be eligible for trademark protection. But even if it loses that case, the team will “NEVER” change its name, Snyder told the USA Today on Thursday:
“We will never change the name of the team,” Snyder told USA TODAY Sports this week. “As a lifelong Redskins fan, and I think that the Redskins fans understand the great tradition and what it’s all about and what it means, so we feel pretty fortunate to be just working on next season.”
What if his football team loses an ongoing federal trademark lawsuit? Would he consider changing it then?
“We’ll never change the name,” he said. “It’s that simple. NEVER — you can use caps.”
The trademark case won’t be resolved anytime soon — probably not until next year, and it will likely see appeals after that. The board stripped the Redskins of their trademark in 1999, only to have the decision overturned on a technicality (that petitioners waited too long to file their claim) in 2003. But the basic case is pretty strong: “Redskins” is plainly derogatory, a racial marker that various dictionaries define as “offensive” and a “term of disparagement,” and petitioners have this time structured the case in a manner that should avoid the timing technicality. Native Americans and activists have fought its use for years, with one, Clem Iron Wing, reportedly telling a school board in Wichita, Kansas — where a high school uses the nickname — that the “only way ‘redskin’ was ever used towards my people and myself was in a derogatory manner.” Pay close enough attention to the debate, and you’ll notice that no one — not even Snyder — defends the term on the grounds that it isn’t racist or derogatory. Instead, they argue that the team should keep it because it’s “tradition” and because 79 percent of Americans support it.
Losing the trademark wouldn’t force the Redskins to change the name. What it would do, however, is make it impossible to stop other people from using it. In short, Snyder wouldn’t be able to stop anyone else from making merchandise with the team name and undercutting official Redskins gear, or to charge anyone for using the name, changes that would cost Snyder considerable financial damage — “every imaginable loss you can think of,” according to attorneys in the 1999 case — and activists hope that would be enough to change his mind. Snyder, though, is a man of immense pride, and my suspicion is that he would try to eat his losses and keep the name out of spite, at least for the time being.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell isn’t likely to feel the same way. Goodell has thus far expressed a startling level of indifference toward the controversy, but if the Redskins lose the trademark — and the NFL’s ability to make money off their licensed and trademarked merchandise — that indifference will assuredly fade. Goodell might “understand the affinity for that name” among fans, but he won’t understand — or tolerate — big financial losses. Ideally, Snyder and Goodell would change the name because it’s plainly derogatory. Getting rid of it because using racist terminology is expensive, though, may have to suffice.