It’s good to know our nation is in such solid standing around the world, economically and socially, that our government’s priorities can be redirected. What evidently matters is not merely unrest in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria or Ukraine, a rising national debt and entitlement tsunami, the flood of refugee children across the U.S. border or the battle over national health care.
No, a pressing issue of the day is what a football team has on its helmet.
Last week, The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office ruled the NFL team’s name to be disparaging to Native Americans and that the team should be stripped of federal trademark protection. This came after members of the U.S. Senate drafted a letter to the league urging the name change.
The team plans to appeal the trademark ruling, meaning the case could be tied up in court for years, the name rights retained in the meantime (though it’s hard to imagine anyone choosing that moniker). A similar ruling by the board in 1999 was overturned on a technicality in 2003.
The decision by the patent office sparked a response from the Americans for Limited Government, saying if the Redskins are forced to change their name, the federal government then should rename the Richard Russell Senate Office Building because the longtime Georgia senator was a segregationist.
It’s unclear whether the group is just trying to make a point or is serious about such a move. The slippery slope there is that if every bridge, building or road named for someone with unsavory ideas must be renamed, it would be both unwieldy and expensive. It’s easier to avoid such naming going forward than rewriting history through billions of dollars worth of signage, letterhead and business cards.
But while that may be seen as political correctness run amok, pressure against the NFL and the team will continue to mount. Whatever the result in the judicial courts, the court of public opinion already is weighing against team owner Dan Snyder, and it’s not hard to see where this is headed.
Already, many media outlets choose not to use the team’s nickname in news stories. So far, the Redskins’ corporate sponsors haven’t followed suit, but that likely is just a matter of time. Snyder might as well start preparing his “name the team” contest or focus groups and begin the process. If the argument for keeping the mascot is based on the economic success of the brand, that will change when fewer people buy gear with the name displayed and sponsors begin backing away.
Yet that is a function of the free market. The federal government’s involvement isn’t needed to make that happen. The issuance of patents and trademarks should be an apolitical endeavor, not one influenced by politics of the moment.
You can liken this somewhat to the other fights in recent years over symbols deemed offensive — the Georgia flag, for instance, and other states that incorporated the Confederate battle emblem. Symbols first seen as revered, then benign, over time came to stand for something unpleasant to many people. Eventually, a tipping point is reached where there is no chance to rehabilitate an image. Such was the case for the “stars and bars,” and such will be the case for the Redskins.
It’s again worth remembering that a flag or a team mascot is just that, a symbol. No one can fix all of history’s indiscretions or indignities in one fell swoop. In particular, the plight of Native Americans remains an ugly scar on our nation’s history we can’t easily remove. But at the very least, we change a flag or a team name considered to be offensive.
And let’s be honest: Redskins is not a nice name.
Several sports teams have nicknames along a Native American theme, including our own Atlanta Braves. Some argue names like Warriors or Braves seek to honor the nobility of our native countrymen, though often in a cartoonish, stereotypical fashion. Yet it’s hard to make the same case for a name that is little more than a racial slur.
Many colleges, including St. John’s and Stanford, chose to change their Indian mascots. Pro teams have been slower to do so, but not always. Years ago, another Washington team, the NBA’s Bullets, became the Wizards to avoid what some felt was a negative reference to the violence plaguing the mean streets of D.C.
And while tradition and marketing play into such decisions, teams don’t seem as locked into their mascots as they once were. Last week, the NBA’s Charlotte team became the Hornets after spending their first 10 seasons as the Bobcats.
That came after the city’s first Hornets franchise moved to New Orleans, where last year they changed to the Pelicans.
And from a business perspective, such changes offer teams a chance to sell fans a whole new wardrobe full of merchandise. Win-win.
But the way it should happen is through public opinion, sponsors and the NFL putting not-so-subtle pressure on Snyder to change the story from his team’s ugly name back to the product on the field. This is, at its roots, a First Amendment battle the federal government should have no part in. The marketplace will take care of it. Resorting to legal battles will only burn cash for lawyers on both sides and not settle the issue any differently.
We all know the Redskins will change their name, likely sooner rather than later. When they do, their stadium again will fill with fans, and life will go on.
Until then, everyone can just sit back in a prevent defense and run out the clock.