Why the Washington Redskins’ Trademark Loss is Not a Loss

Remy Merritt |

Both the recent Los Angeles Clippers’ Donald Sterling debacle, and now the Washington Redskins' name controversy has unearthed the persistence of racism in one of the most visible American arenas: our sports fields.

In a USA Today Sports interview one year ago, Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder confidently stated, "We'll never change the name. It's that simple. NEVER — you can use caps."In response the U.S. Senate moved up the NFL chain of command and appealed straight to the top. A letter signed May 22, 2014 by 50 of the Senate’s 55 Democrats put pressure on NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to force a name change for the team.

In response to a reporter at the Mar. 24, 2014 NFL owner’s meetings in Orlando, Fl., Goodell commented, “we have, I think, done a very thorough job of making sure that we understand all perspectives on this. And we will continue to do that.” Three months later, it is clear that for NFL team owners and the league’s commissioner, understanding does not mean acting.

Latest in News: Trademark Appeal

The US Trademark Trial and Appeal Board has made the first move, taking the offensive and cancelling the Washington Redskins’ trademark registration of “Redskins” for use in connection with the national football team. The board cited the decision as a move supporting “a substantial composite of Native Americans [who] found the term Redskins to be disparaging.”

While the ruling shows clear government support for the Native American population, the trademark cancellation will have no immediate effects. The board is unable to ban the use of the name outright, and the trademark cancellation will likely fail to affect any team profits during the appeals process.

The only avenue left for the Redskins to protect their use of the name is under “common law trademark rights.” Common law rights protect against third-party use of a name that is widely recognized by consumers as particular to a specific brand, and do not require federal registration of a trademark. These rights may continue to be used should the Washington Redskins lose the appeal and thus lose their trademarked use of the name, thus protecting the Redskins against any loss in profits from third-party vendors.

Redskins’ trademark attorney Bob Raskopft released a self-assured statement the same day, boasting that he and Redskins managers have “seen this story before. And just like last time, today’s ruling with have no effect at all on the team’s ownership of and right to use the Redskins name and logo.”

Legitimacy of Redskins’ Justification Is Debatable

In a far more conciliatory letter addressed to Senator Harry Reid on May 24, 2014, Bruce Allen claims the name originated as a Native American expression of solidarity.

In the reputable scholarly reviewcited by Allen to justify the team name, Dr. Ives Goddard ascertains the term “red skin” was used by early European settlers to describe the Native Americans they encountered, knowing no other way to classify them beyond their different skin tone. This method of identification was not exclusively used by white settlers, and Native Americans also identified Europeans as “white men.”

Widely understood as taboo, the “N” word is often given the same denotation of solidarity for the black individuals who choose to use it; this does not make it usable for the greater American public who do not share African American lineage. Its use is entirely distasteful, and those who choose to use it risk appearing uneducated, insensitive and racist. For a term such as “redskin” that holds a history of prejudice and racism, the same risks apply. Its use, not only as an NFL team name but the name of the team based in nation’s capital, inflates this risk on a national scale.

Redskins’ Response is Unwaveringly Stubborn

Officials for the Washington Redskins don’t appear to have any game plans to change their controversial name.

In his letter, Bruce Allen invited Sen. Reid to “attend one of our home games, where you would witness first-hand that the Washington Redskins are a positive, unifying force for our community in a city and region that is divided on so many levels.”

A community decidedly lacking in Native representation. In 2012, the US Census Bureau determined Native American population of Washington D.C. to be 0.6 percent. Considering there are likely very few Native American attendees at any given Redskins game, it is unclear what place they hold in the unified community to which Allen was referring.

Allen’s remarks bring to mind the tone-deafness of sports pariah Donald Sterling. Beyond claiming a net worth of over $1 billion each and seated at the head of prominent sports teams, Donald Sterling and Daniel Snyder have another characteristic in common. Both are old white men with a history of entrepreneurship and franchise-building and no cultural connection to the racial slurs with which they are associated.

According to Allen, the Washington Redskins “are one of the NFL’s flagship franchises.” That is exactly what these teams are for their owners: franchises. The United States operates on corporate power, and while this is not immediately negative, it does impose certain limitations on sensitivity. Why is it that Bruce Allen, Daniel Snyder, Roger Goodell and the Redskins’ attorney are so adamant on retaining the trademarked name, despite clear and persistent protests from the Native American population?

The answer is simple: protected ownership and consumer brand recognition. It is the fear that such an extreme change to the franchise would result in a drop in revenue. The Washington Redskins have been the Redskins since 1933, and are recognized as such by their widespread fans. Redskins’ apparel ranges from jerseys to board games to rugs; you can wear, play or wipe your shoes on the racialized name of slightly more than 1 percent of the United States population, with team owners distributing the profits.

The appeals process over the Redskins’ trademark could last a very long time. In the meantime, the team will continue to sell Redskins gear and game tickets while it fights to preserve its unimpeded claim to the name, and plaintiffs will continue to fight to preserve respect for their culture and history.

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