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3Qs: When team names are out of bounds

The Washington Redskins have made news off the football field recently, with the U.S. Patent and Trademark office canceling the team’s federal trademarks. After a petition was brought before the agency, officials ruled that the Redskins name is disparaging toward Native Americans and would no longer be enforced. Roger Abrams, law professor and expert on sports business and law, discusses what led up to this decision and what the ruling will mean for the team and for the NFL.

What led to the ruling from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office against the Redskins?

A group of Native Americans brought the claim before the Patent and Trademark Office based on the racist disparagement inherent in the team’s name. The office’s decision to remove the trademark protection is thorough and thoughtful, fully consistent with the established jurisprudence on matters such as this one. As we know, however, the team’s owner, Dan Snyder, vows to fight the decision through the courts.

What are the financial and legal consequences for the Redskins organization and the NFL?

The Washington team—you notice that I will not use its racist name—pools its earnings from merchandise with 30 other NFL teams (Dallas has opted out), and so the financial consequences will be not be substantial for the NFL. The issue of the nickname of the team, however, will not be determined by the legal appeal. It will be decided in the court of public opinion. Think of other racist epithets. Would we countenance a sports team to be called Washington “n-words?” We have moved beyond that as a nation and as a people.

You’ve written a good deal about sports history and law. How does this situation compare with past controversies or debates centered on professional team names?

It was not unusual in much earlier times to find clubs or teams with racist names. Just think of how prominent blackface minstrel shows were at one point. The issue is not what was acceptable back then, but what is acceptable now and in the future. It also seems to me to be a great business opportunity for Snyder, Washington’s owner. Perhaps he could hold a contest to rename the team and design a new logo. When our local football team the New England Patriots retired “Pat Patriot” and replaced him in 1993 with the “flying Elvis,” everyone needed some new clothing. Re-branding Washington would mean all the old T-shirts and caps must go and new ones purchased to take their place.