What's in a name? It may be that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but the history of the term "redskin" is laced with prejudice.
As long ago as 1863, a Minnesota newspaper printed a notice reading, "The state reward for dead Indians has been increased to $200 for every red-skin sent to purgatory. This sum is more than the dead bodies of all the Indians east of the Red River are worth."
With that as history, it's very hard to imagine the name as being noble or that it celebrates a race's bravery. But the Washington Redskins insist that is precisely the reason for the team's name. On Wednesday, the United States Patent and Trademark Office removed trademark protection for the team's name, declaring it "disparaging to Native Americans."
This is the second time that the PTO has removed trademark protection for the team name and logo; a 1992 decision was reversed on a technicality in 1999. Last year, a bill was introduced in Congress to void any trademark registrations that disparaged Native American persons, specifically use of the term "redskins," and 10 members of Congress sent letters to the National Football League, the Washington team and to its primary sponsor, FedEx, requesting the team to change its name.
Among those signing the letter and co-sponsoring the bill was D.C. Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton, who said, "I support the team, but not its name."
Dan Snyder, the team's owner, has dug in his heels, having said in May of last year that the team would never change its name.
The Washington team is not the only one to have its name challenged by Native Americans. In 1972, Stanford University changed its team name and mascot from the Stanford Indians to the Cardinal — the color, not the bird.
The PTO decision will probably have some economic impact on the Washington team. If the decision remains intact after the team's inevitable appeal, then you, I, or anyone else may sell clothing, coffee cups or any other crap we want to without paying royalties to the NFL. The Redskins and their logo are among the most valuable in all of professional sports, so the potential loss to the team's and league's bottom line could run into the millions. However, the decision doesn't force the team to change its name. Existing licensing agreements for the use of the team logo remain in force and trademark infringement law still might apply, even without PTO trademark protection.
It isn't common, but neither is it unheard of for a professional sports team to change its name without moving. In the 1950s, the Cincinnati Reds responded to the notorious House Un-Americans Activities Committee headed by Sen. Joe McCarthy by changing its name to the "Red Legs," and later, back to the "Reds." Before they were the Yankees, the New York Highlanders played baseball in the Bronx. More than 20 professional sports franchises have made name changes, so the Washington team wouldn't be setting a precedent.
Whether the team should retain or change its name is a matter of public interest, but it seems to me that the decision rests in the Washington Redskins' hands and in the court of public opinion. When fans stop buying Washington Redskins merchandise and season tickets, the team will get the message. When and if protestors show up around FedEx Field, M&T Bank Stadium and Heinz Field, the NFL may get the message. When Snyder starts to receive mail from the people who pay extravagant prices to sit in his stadium's seats, telling him to get over himself, perhaps then the team will wake up to the reality that its name is just plain offensive, not only to Native Americans, but to Americans.
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The PTO's actions are intended to accomplish a public good, but it has been said, and rightly so, you cannot legislate morals. Neither can you regulate them.