Last week in Alexandria, Va., a group of Native Americans argued in front of the Trademark Trials and Appeals Board that Washington D.C.’s NFL team was not entitled to federal trademark protection because the nickname “Redskins” is a racial slur. The team’s lawyers disagreed. What does Washington have to lose by changing its iconic logo and nickname? Patrick Hruby, who explored this matter in his Sports on Earth column earlier this week, joined Bill Littlefield.
BL: Tell me a little more about the arguments made by both sides before the Trials and Appeals Board last week?
PH: Basically you have one side – you’ve got a group of Native American petitioners. They’re arguing that the word “Redskins” is a racial slur and it shouldn’t be entitled to federal trademark protection. There are actually provisions within federal trademark law that basically say you can’t trademark something that’s offensive or a slur. You can’t profit off this. Meanwhile, the Redskins lawyers basically are saying the intention behind this name is good. It’s not offensive, it’s actually an honorific, and it’s rooted in all this pride and tradition around the team. They’ve had it for 80 years now.
BL: In your March 13 Sports on Earth column titled “The Price of Right” you explored what Washington would have to do in order to rebrand itself. What would that be and how much would it cost?
PH: I talked with people who are pretty knowledgeable about professional football, you know, front office financial matters. They didn’t want me to name them, obviously. They said that for an NFL team, and a major NFL team like the Redskins that’s been around for a while, the cost could be between $10 and $20 million.
BL: As you’ve pointed out, Washington claims the nickname is honorific. The team owner Dan Snyder once said that the “red” in “Redskins” has to do with war paint. Does anyone outside the team find that to be a plausible justification?
PH: Well maybe some of the team’s fans find that to be a plausible justification. The Redskins themselves have like sort of a long history of racism. Not necessarily against Native Americans but against African Americans. George Preston Marshall, the former owner of the team that actually came up with the “Redskins” nickname was a notorious, incorrigible racist. The Redskins were the last team in the NFL to have an African American player. I don’t mean to offend anyone here, but if we had a team that was, you know, the “Washington Yellowskins” or the “Washington Darkskins” or something like that, that wouldn’t last 10 seconds. People would be totally outraged.
BL: People who appeal before the Appeals Board are typically looking for money, but you have written that money is not what the plaintiffs are looking for in this case. Tell me a little bit about what their intention is.
PH: What they’re suing for is basically to say look this is a slur. Under the law you cannot trademark a slur. So what would that mean? It wouldn’t mean that the plaintiffs would get any money. It would mean that the Redskins would no longer have the exclusive rights to marketing Redskins gear, Redskins keychains, Redskins toss pillows, Redskins beer cozies. Other people could come in and manufacture that stuff and also make money off of it. So that’s why I think this is about money.
BL: How do you see this matter playing out?
PH: I don’t think that a name change is imminent. If the team loses in trademark court, it’s pretty likely they will change because ultimately this is a business. They want to have those exclusive rights. And, in the NFL, merchandising rights are shared. They’re sort of pooled and shared among all the teams except the Dallas Cowboys. So it wouldn’t necessarily just be costing Daniel Snyder’s team money here in Washington. It would be costing all the NFL teams potentially a little bit of money if they didn’t have exclusive rights to the name “Redskins.” If they don’t lose the suit, I think they’re going to fight and hold onto it for quite a while.