When members of Congress sent a letter to National Football League commissioner Roger Goodell in June asking him to take a stand against the name of Washington’s professional football franchise, he responded by defending the Redskins’ name as a symbol of “strength, courage, pride, and respect.”
Goodell’s stance may be evolving, if his appearance on a Washington D.C. radio show is any indication. As the Huffington Post reported, Goodell told 106.7 The Fan’s LaVar Arrington (who played for Washington) and Chad Dukes that the NFL needed to listen to those who find the name offensive.
“Well, as you guys know, I grew up in Washington. So, the Colts were my team early on, and then I became a Redskins fan,” Goodell said Wednesday. “I know the team name is part of their history and tradition — and that’s something that’s important to the Redskins’ fans — and I think what we have to do though is we have to listen. If one person’s offended, we have to listen. And, ultimately, it is Dan’s decision. But it is something that I want all of us to go out and make sure we’re listening to our fans, listening to people who have a different view, and making sure that we continue to do what’s right to make sure that team represents the strong tradition and history that it has for so many years.”
Even if the NFL is willing to listen, leaving the decision up to Washington owner Daniel Snyder, as Goodell said the league would, makes it a moot point. Snyder earlier this year vowed to “NEVER” change the name, even if his franchise has hosted focus groups and conducted fan surveys to judge reaction to it. But Goodell also hinted — if ever so slightly — that the league could one day take action if the name becomes a burden for the NFL’s other franchises.
“Well, you know, we’re always sensitive to what impacts on the league in general,” Goodell said. “That includes our 32 teams and making sure that we’re doing what’s right here, and that’s why I think, again, we have to do everything that is necessary to make sure that we’re representing the franchise in a positive way and that rich history and tradition. And if we are offending one person, we need to be listening and making sure we’re doing the right things to try to address that.”
That people find Washington’s name offensive now doesn’t affect the other 31 teams. But it’s not hard to imagine a day when it could. Eni Faleomavaega, American Samoa’s delegate to Congress, introduced legislation that would strip Washington’s trademark on “Redskins” on grounds that it violates laws against trademarking racist terms. The federal trademark court in Washington is hearing a similar case against the name, and while that case may not reach an ultimate decision for a few years, there are indications that the franchise could lose. The court stripped the trademark in 1999, but an appeals court overturned the decision on a technicality in 2003. The current case addresses the technicality that led to the NFL and Washington’s successful appeal.
Losing the trademark wouldn’t force Snyder to change the name. What it would do, however, is remove all protections for Washington’s brand, allowing almost anyone who wanted to put “Redskins” on a shirt or other piece of merchandise to do so without repercussion. That could cost Snyder a substantial sum of money — “every imaginable loss you can think of,” attorneys argued in the 1999 case. More importantly, it would also make the NFL and its other franchises vulnerable to financial losses because NFL merchandising revenue is shared among all 32 teams. Once the NFL starts losing money because of the name — and it won’t likely do so until the trademark is lost, since 79 percent of Americans still support it — Goodell and the league may have no choice but to step in to, in his words, do “what’s right” for all 32 franchises.
Goodell’s positional shift toward listening to fans like the Oneida Tribe in Wisconsin that will protest outside Green Bay’s Lambeau Field and another running ads against the name in New York may be little more than a public relations move meant to assuage those who find the name racist and offensive, at least in the short-term. Or maybe he’s being genuine, and the NFL is ready to hear the opinions of those who want the name changed without immediately dismissing them. But in the NFL as in any business, losing money is what is truly offensive to those in power, and barring a major shift in public opinion, it is the trademark case that has the potential to make that happen. Right now, the smartest decision is to defend Washington, but that may not be the case in the not-so-distant future. Goodell may not want to admit that publicly, but his cautious answer to Arrington’s follow-up question shows that he knows it.