New Ruling in Redskins Name Controversy

It’s hard to imagine a sports fan who isn’t at least somewhat familiar with the Washington Redskins name controversy. For that matter, it’s honestly hard to image a person who isn’t familiar with the Redskins name controversy. It’s been covered by mainstream news media for quite some time, especially by pundits working for news outlets which allow them to voice their opinions. And boy, do they ever have some opinions.

Now, it looks like we’re about to hear those opinions with a lot more frequency over the next few days and, if the news is slow, possibly even weeks. This is because a new legal ruling has brought the Redskins name controversy back into the spotlight. Well, not necessarily a new ruling. To be fair, this is more of an old ruling which has simply been upheld. But before we get to that, we’d like to cover some of the basics. For those who may not know much about it, we’ll discuss the history of the Redskins name controversy and the primary arguments as to why the team either should or shouldn’t change their name. We’ll then talk about the ruling that has been upheld, as well as how this ruling might affect the team.

On a side note, it appears that we’ve been covering a lot of history this week. If it’s something you enjoy reading about, then check out our article on Melissa Mayeux for some info on women in baseball, and our article on Prokick Australia for some background on Australians in the NCAA and NFL. For now, however, we’ll get back to the Redskins.

History of Redskins Name Controversy

The Redskins name has been around since back when football players looked much, much different. (Library of Congress)

The Redskins name has been around since back when football players looked much, much different. (Library of Congress)

It isn’t too difficult to figure out where the Redskins name controversy comes from. The basic belief is that the name “Redskins” promotes a racist view of Native Americans. This belief is not just held in regard to their name, but to their logo as well. A simple look at their Wikipedia page demonstrates that the team has always been associated with Native American imagery. They were originally the Boston Braves back in 1932, but they changed their name to the Boston Redskins the following year. Following their move to Washington in 1937, they kept their name. Naturally, this is nothing uncommon. A change of venue does not generally necessitate a name change.

The Redskins name controversy itself can be dated all the way back to 1992. Native American rights activist Suzan Harjo petitioned to have the Trial and Appeal Board of the US Patent and Trademark Office cancel the trademark registration of the Washington Redskins. The petition was granted, but was appealed by Pro-Football, Inc. The eventual result was that the Redskins were allowed to keep their name. But this decision by the appellate court did not mean that the Redskins name controversy was simply going to die out.

Harjo’s case had been decided in 2003, and subsequently upheld in 2009. But in 2006, a similar case was filed. The case in question, Blackhorse v. Pro-Football, Inc., was put on hold for several years. Eventually, however, it was continued. In 2014, Amanda Blackhorse (among others who had filed the suit) saw a most unexpected development in the case. While the case had been considered to be more symbolic than anything else, it was found that the Redskins trademark did disparage Native Americans. As a result, the trademark registration was cancelled. The Redskins name controversy itself did not simply vanish, but those who had initiated it had gotten their way. For the most part, anyway. The trademark was cancelled, but the name was not (nor could it be) forcibly changed.

Of course, the Washington Redskins are not the only team whose name and logo make use of Native American imagery. The Kansas City Chiefs are one prime example. In fact, a Sonic Drive-In in Missouri caused a stir back in 2013 when they changed their marquee prior to a game. It read that the Chiefs would scalp the Redskins, feed them whiskey, and send them to a reservation. And no, we aren’t exaggerating. Heck, we’re hardly even paraphrasing. Any one of those things would have caused a fuss, but all three? The only way it could have been worse is if they had changed “whiskey” to “fire water,” and we’re tempted to believe that the only reason they didn’t is because they ran out of letters.

Nevertheless, Kansas City’s VP of Communications does not believe the team’s name has sparked any controversy. He’s obviously mistaken, but his stance does draw attention to how strange it is that the Redskins name controversy receives so much press. Not only is this sort of thing not confined to Washington, but it’s not even confined to the NFL. The MLB has the Atlanta Braves and the Cleveland Indians, the latter of which has the mascot Chief Wahoo, a Native American caricature who looks just racist enough to star in a 1930s Disney cartoon. The NHL also has the Chicago Blackhawks, although Scott Sypolt of the American Indian Center of Chicago indicates that they’re actually one of the better teams in American sports when it comes to showing reverence toward Native American heritage and maintaining a dialogue with Native American rights activists.

In short, the history of the Redskins name controversy actually extends past the borders of Washington, or even their former hometown of Boston (which was, incidentally, also the former home of the Atlanta Braves). But has that influenced any of the arguments either for or against a possible name change? Well, let’s see….

Why Both Arguments Have Some Merit

Barack Obama is one of the most notable advocates of a name change. (Biography.com)

Barack Obama is one of the most notable advocates of a name change. (Biography.com)

First of all, it should be stated that Native American rights activists are not the only ones who feel that the Redskins should change their name. The article above, which mentions other athletic teams with Native American names and logos, notes that other teams have previously separated themselves from such imagery. The first was the Buffalo Braves, although their choice to become the San Diego Clippers in 1978 was based almost entirely on their location change. (So apparently we were wrong earlier…sometimes a move does necessitate a name change. Crazy.) The other was the Golden State Warriors, who several years before 1978 had already relieved themselves of any Native American imagery tied to the franchise.

More interestingly, however, is that the government has become involved in the Redskins name controversy. President Barack Obama’s administration backed a lawsuit against the team’s trademark in January of this year, which isn’t too surprising given that Obama himself spoke out against the team’s name back in 2013. Now, the administration is trying to block the team from building a stadium in the District unless they change their name. Their reasoning is pretty straightforward. Native Americans find the use of certain names and symbols to be derogatory, and they believe that this leads to a misrepresentation of their history. Change the name, and they won’t be offended anymore. It isn’t that hard to end the Redskins name controversy once and for all, so why not just do it?

Those who would oppose a name change, however, do not find the matter to be so simple. Both team president Bruce Allen and Fox News personality Pete Hegseth have stated that the team’s name and logo are meant to be a measure of respect for the Native American people. Hegseth specifically stated that the word “redskin” is not a racial slur, implying that it may have been some time since Hegseth has picked up a dictionary.

But before we get too judgmental, there may be something to this. Sure, everyone from Obama to John McCain to just about any civil rights activist you can name seems to favor a name change. However, remember what we said about the Blackhawks earlier, and how great they’ve been about opening a dialogue with the Native American people? What if team owner Daniel Snyder hadn’t stated his refusal to change the name in such an abrasive fashion? The Redskins name controversy might never have gained so much speed, and they wouldn’t have CB DeAngelo Hall supporting a name change.

It’s pretty easy to favor either side in this argument. Hegseth wants us to listen to some highly disputed poll that says most Native Americans (“self-identified” Native Americans, whatever that means) are not offended by the name. But if we published a poll of “self-identified people of color” who said they wouldn’t be offended by a team called the Florida Spearchuckers, would that actually make it any less disparaging? What if we tried to argue that the name was simply chosen out of the team’s respect for former M*A*S*H actor and Philadelphia RB Timmy Brown?

On the other hand, what if the problem is really just the lack of dialogue? What if there’s some truth to the fact that the team wants to be respectful? Should fans and other supporters of the name be punished just because of a brash statement made by Snyder? Could this have all been handled better back in 1992, with both sides finding a compromise that ended the Redskins name controversy before it started without disrespecting either side of the debate? We may never know.

Details of the New Trademark Ruling

Basically, the news regarding the Redskins name controversy is that the trademark registration has been officially, undeniably cancelled. Of course, as they have done in the past, the team is planning to go ahead and try to appeal the decision once again. A representative of the Oneida Indian Nation is shocked that they’re still fighting this in court. The representative in question, Ray Halbritter, was quoted as saying: “If something happening decades ago was reason alone to continue doing it, then America would still have Jim Crow laws and Confederate flags would still be flying on top of state capitol buildings.”

We won’t even get into the “Confederate flag” part of his comment, since that’s a whole other debate that continues to spark controversy, and it’s not really our place as a sports site to talk about it. The issue of “something happening decades ago,” however, is at the forefront of Bruce Allen’s decision to continue with their appeal. He says: “We are convinced that we will win because the facts and the law are on the side of our franchise that has proudly used the name Redskins for more than 80 years.” Of course, just about every case since the first one back when Harjo was at the front of the discussion seems to have demonstrated that the law is not, in fact, on their side.

The judge’s opinion on the ruling is seventy pages, but it’s actually a fascinating read for those who are able to sift through it. For instance, it shows that Judge Gerald Bruce Lee is surprisingly knowledgeable when it comes to professional sports. To quote from the document itself: “Just as Allen Iverson once reminded the media that they were wasting time at the end of the Philadelphia 76ers’ season ‘talking about practice’ and not an actual professional basketball game, the Court is similarly compelled to highlight what is at issue in this case—trademark registration, not the trademarks themselves.”

That Allen Iverson reference is accurate (you can actually watch the quoted interview here). But that isn’t actually what’s most important here. What matters most is the fact that trademarks and trademark registration are not the same element. Judge Lee continues to explain that the Washington Redskins may continue to use the exact same name and assorted logos which are at the very heart of the Redskins name controversy. They simply will not maintain legal registration if their appeal is not upheld.

To some, that might make it seem as if the whole suit was a waste of time. Judge Lee writes that throughout the proceedings, the issues of trademark and trademark registration were repeatedly conflated. So is it possible that Blackhorse and her supporters did not actually know what they were fighting for? Does this mean literally anything for the Redskins name controversy?

Well, possibly. Actually, it might mean quite a bit. It all depends upon how poorly Snyder and other team representatives receive the effects of the cancelled registration in the (somewhat likely) event that their appeal is not favored. And the effects in question could actually be quite significant….

How Might This Affect the Redskins?

We don’t know that this will actually happen, but it’s fun to think about. (Comedy Central/YouTube)

We don’t know that this will actually happen, but it’s fun to think about. (Comedy Central/YouTube)

Forget about their reputation. That normally seems like the kind of thing we might elect to talk about here, but that’s more relevant to their refusal to change their name than to the loss of their trademark registration. Besides, it seems clear that Bruce Allen and Dan Snyder have enough faith in their team’s reputation to allow them to personally justify their continued refusal to buckle under pressure. So whether or not there’s any risk of hurting the team’s reputation is likely not a concern to them.

That said, there is one thing about which we are more than willing to bet they are concerned. Profits. More specifically, the profits they receive from merchandise sales. Those profits have already been on a decline, falling 43.8% last year. Before you jump to conclusions, that doesn’t seem like it’s necessarily relevant to the Redskins name controversy at all. It could be, but the other leading theory is that it has more to do with QB Robert Griffin III. More of his jerseys had been sold during the prior season than those of any other NFL player in the history of the sport. When those sales dropped, so did merchandising profits for the Washington Redskins.

But whether or not the Redskins name controversy affected the drop in sales last year, you can bet your bottom dollar that the controversy will be right at the heart of any loss in profits they incur following the loss of their trademark registration. If you look at official Washington Redskins merchandise, you’ll find that T-shirts often go for around $32, with other major sellers such as jerseys going for much more than that. Since the cancellation of their trademark allows others to use their name and logos, competitors could begin offering similar merchandise at lower prices. True, there are some people who would prefer official products to items of slightly lesser quality, even at a reduced price. But enough competition will still make it hard for the Redskins to keep their profits up.

Then, there’s the somewhat more ludicrous possibility that was actually pointed out back when the trademark registration was first cancelled back in 2014. Now, we aren’t exactly sure how ludicrous this is from a legal standpoint, but we feel the need to call it that because it was featured in an episode of South Park. The episode in question had the boys using the Washington Redskins name for their own company. This leads to a new brand of Redskins name controversy when Snyder, playing for his own team, is severely injured by a bunch of Cowboys (the show’s metaphors are rarely known for their subtlety). We aren’t saying that a burgeoning start-up company run by fifth-graders is going to spark a new Redskins name controversy, because that’s ridiculous. But the fact of the matter is that anyone can use the name now, and as far as we know, they can use it for whatever they want.

We find ourselves saying this whenever we posit the question of “how will x affect y,” but it bears repeating—there’s no telling exactly what will happen. For all we know, not a single person will take advantage of the trademark registration cancellation. Maybe the Washington Redskins will even win their appeal. And even if people do take advantage, that doesn’t mean that Washington will ever change their name (actor Matthew McConaughey certainly doesn’t want them to). The Redskins name controversy might continue on forever in one form or another. But given that at least a couple of potential competitors out there are likely to be as profit-driven as Eric Cartman, the overwhelming odds are that things will be rough for the Redskins if they don’t win this appeal. Whether they change their name or not, we wouldn’t want to be in Snyder’s shoes right now.