LEGAL SCHOLARS raised intriguing questions Wednesday after a federal judge ruled that Washington’s pro football team could no longer trademark the name “Redskins.” Issues of freedom of speech were debated. Precedents including Confederate flag license plates and a rock group calling itself “The Slants” were cited.
All very interesting, as we say. But the question that first occurred to us, as we listened to team executives once again rise to the defense of the team’s offensive name, was: Do they really not get it? The glory of their history, the passion of their fans, the purity of their hearts — none of that matters any more.
U.S. District Court Judge Gerald Bruce Lee was affirming what everyone knows: “Redskins” is a slur. You would not dream of saying it, face to face, to a Native American, so why do team officials think it is okay for a football team? The name is going to have to change, and the sooner team owner Dan Snyder puts himself on the right side of history, the better it will be for everyone.
“The evidence before the Court supports the legal conclusion that between 1967 and 1990, the Redskins Marks consisted of matter that ‘may disparage’ a substantial composite of Native Americans,” Judge Lee of the Eastern District of Virginia wrote in the case brought by five Native American activists. The 70-page ruling emphasized that the organization is still free to use the name; if it does, however, it could lose important legal protections and marketing advantage for team merchandise.
The ruling, affirming a decision last year by a U.S. Patent and Trademark Office judicial panel, won’t go into effect until all appeals in the federal court system have been exhausted. Given Mr. Snyder’s defiant vow in 2013 “NEVER” to change the team’s name, he might try to stretch the legal battle out for years.
Common decency hasn’t swayed Mr. Snyder not to use a name that is clearly insulting, but at some point shouldn’t someone in his front office point out the costs of prolonging the controversy: the money spent on lawyers, the demeaning public relations gimmickry, the constant distraction of trying to defend the indefensible? Shouldn’t someone in the National Football League be thinking about the impact to the league’s beleaguered image?
No matter what a court eventually determines about the ability of the team to peddle its gear, the damage caused by using a hurtful name will continue.