Dan Snyder, owner of the Washington Redskins, is in a bind. Sure, Snyder has the distinct fortune of presiding over one of the most iconic (and valuable) national football franchises in history. Yet…his football team has the most patently offensive name in professional sport. In fact, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board found just that when it revoked the Redskins’ trademark in 1999 because it had the potential to “disparage Native Americans and bring them into contempt or disrepute.” If not for the untimely manner in which the lawsuit was brought, Snyder may have lost his valued trademark.

Mike Wise, sports columnist for The Washington Post, recently summarized one Native American’s stance on the name: “When I visited the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota in 2007, a man named Leonard Littlefinger told me that if I walked into a bar on the reservation and said “Redskins,” I would possibly be knocked unconscious.”

Jim Vance, a local DC TV anchor, weighed in on the issue as well: “Back in the day, if you really wanted to insult a black man, attack a Jew, an Irishman, and probably start a fight, you threw out certain words. You know what they are. They were, and they are, pejoratives of the first order, the worst order, specifically intended to injure. In my view, ‘Redskin’ was and is in that same category . . . . The name sucks. We need to get rid of it.”

Should Snyder give in to the recent criticism over his team’s name, the Redskins’s rank among the world’s most valuable franchises will surely be in jeopardy (Manchester United, the Dallas Cowboys and the New York Yankees are the only franshises ranked ahead of the Skins).

Will Snyder change the name, then? No chance. He has nearly 1.56 billion reasons not to. However, if he wants to relocate the team’s stadium from Landover, Maryland to the nation’s capitol, he may have to.

–Jake Raff

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2 Responses to What’s in a Name?

  1. Bradlee Edmondson says:

    Great post–I’m glad to see this issue getting some attention. I don’t think, though, that the value of the franchise is remotely comparable to what Snyder stands to lose (or not lose) if he does change the name. Instead, I think all, or nearly all, of that value would be retained in an orderly transition to a non-racist team name. And if it is changed to something less offensive, might it even go up in value?

    From a legal perspective, on the issue of laches I think the TTAB had it right and the District Court had it wrong. Trademark rights remain contingent on numerous principles, like use in commerce and non-generic-ness, which if violated can cancel a mark at any time. Bars to trademark registration, like “scandalous” and “disparaging” marks, can also lead to cancelation at any time. It doesn’t make much sense to me to apply laches to a good-faith claim by people in a group disparaged by the mark (and not even competing with the mark holder) just because the mark holder has built up significant value in the mark. We wouldn’t apply laches to the issue of canceling generic marks (just ask Kleenex and Xerox), so why should the business owner using a racist trademark, which was offensive from day one, get a free pass?

  2. Michael Dearington says:

    Nice post, Jake. This reminds me a bit of the Wizards’s former name, the Washington Bullets, which was also viewed as unsavory but ultimately renamed by ownership in the 90s in part because of the high homicide rate in DC. The Redskins’s substantially larger fan base, as compared to that of the Bullets, may be influencing Snyder because of the potential backlash from longtime Redskins fans.

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