Dan Snyder, the owner of the Washington Redskins, who has taken a determination to flout public disapprobation to heights that even disgraced Clippers owner Donald Sterling has yet to reach, got some bad news this morning. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has voided six trademark registrations for the team’s name on the ground that it is an anti-Native American slur.
This doesn’t mean that Snyder must drop the name Redskins from Washington’s football team. But it means that he cannot prevent anyone else from selling merchandise with the name on it. While there are some people who may feel that they absolutely have to have a $295 Elite Throwback Robert Griffin III Jersey blessed by the team itself, there are certainly plenty of fans who may decide that after ponying up for game tickets and hideously priced stadium beer and snacks, a knockoff T-shirt is a more sensible investment.
I would not be surprised if Snyder stands his ground anyway, after years of gleefully tweaking anyone who has issued a basic appeal to courtesy or financial common sense. But if he decides to change the name of his team, Snyder could seize an opportunity not just to reinforce his financial position, but to make a real gesture towards strengthening the franchise’s relationship with the city where it is located.
As BuzzFeed’s Joseph Bernstein wrote in a lovely piece about watching the Redskins with his stepfather: “Do Washingtonians want a team they can be proud of in every aspect of its constitution? Should not the name of a team that has been at times a force for racial harmony, a team which today boasts a black quarterback who is the pride of the city, bear a name worthy of its accomplishments? Maybe most importantly, can we make the story of the name change not past versus future, not racist versus progressive, but shame versus pride?”
This is not the first time that a Washington sports team (or any sports team) has changed its name. As Locke Peterseim explained at ESPN.com, the Washington Wizards were first the Chicago Packers, named for that city’s meat industry, then the Chicago Zephyrs, and became the Bullets when the team moved to Baltimore.
“In 1996 [owner Abe] Pollin was shook by the assassination of a friend, Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was shot by a Jewish extremist,” Peterseim continued. “Add to that Washington’s longtime ranking at the top of list of the worst cities for murders and gunshot wounds per capita, and Pollin believed ‘Bullets’ was no longer an appropriate nickname for a sports team. (Similarly, the Houston Colt .45s baseball team had become the Houston Astros in 1965, the last time a major sports franchise had changed its nickname without moving.)”
Turning the Bullets into the Wizards did not change everything, or turn the franchise around immediately. Not everyone liked the new name, and plenty of people have noted the issues that would accompany a Redskins name change, charging that it was a cynical cash-in to get everyone to buy new gear. And, of course, a name does not make a team excellent.
But the shift did clear the way for fans, be they born Washingtonians or transplants to the area looking to embrace a local franchise, to love the Wizards without embarrassment or reservation. It would be wonderful, and overdue, for the Redskins to remake the team’s image a cause for affirmative pride rather than compromised enthusiasm or outright embarrassment.