Changing the Terrible Name of Washington’s Football Franchise

Washington’s football franchise has a derogatory name; here’s how to change it.

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FILE - In this Aug. 28, 2009, file photo, the Washington Redskins logo is displayed at midfield before the start of a preseason NFL football game in Landover, Md. The team's nickname, which some consider a derogatory term for Native Americans, has faced a barrage of criticism. But a new Associated Press-GfK poll shows that nationally, “Redskins” still enjoys widespread support.

A group of lawmakers on Capitol Hill, as U.S. News' Lauren Fox reports, is calling on Washington, D.C.'s National Football League franchise – unfortunately called the Redskins – to finally change its name. In a letter to owner Dan Snyder and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, the 10 lawmakers, including the co-chairs of the Congressional Native American Caucus, write, "Native Americans throughout the country consider the term 'redskin' a racial, derogatory slur akin to the 'N-word' among African-Americans or the 'W-word' among Latinos … Washington's NFL football team profits from a term that is equally disparaging to Native Americans."

Snyder has come under increased pressure to change the derogatory name of his franchise, including from the D.C. city leadership and Washington's (nonvoting) member of the House of Representatives (who cosigned the letter). But, so far, he seems immune to such pressure.

So it was a point the 10 lawmakers made later in their letter that likely highlights the way towards enticing a recalcitrant and belligerent Snyder to come around. And it doesn't have to do with anyone's feelings; it has to do with economics.

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As Fox notes, "Lawmakers have alerted the NFL that Congress introduced legislation that would amend the 1946 Trademark Act and cancel any trademark that used the term 'redskin.'" That bill, H.R. 1278, would eliminate one of Snyder's money-making avenues, removing the trademark protection that prevents other organizations from marketing Redskins gear.

As ThinkProgress' Travis Waldron explains, "Losing the trademark wouldn't force the Redskins to change the name. What it would do, however, is make it impossible to stop other people from using it." The Redskins are the fifth most valuable sports franchise in the world, so cutting off the trademark spigot would likely be more effective, sadly, than the string of Native American leaders who have come forward to explain the derogatory history of the term with which Washington endows its team.

Pro sports (as I've noted here before) is a big business and there are myriad ways in which the government is implicitly or explicitly backing the profits of franchises and their owners. And teams, as every fight over public subsidies for a new stadium shows, will go to great lengths to protect that backing. Washington's team is already facing one lawsuit looking to strip away the trademark; an affirmative act of Congress to finish the trademark off would leave Snyder with quite the conundrum.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the budget and deficit.]

For precedent, it's worth revisiting what led Washington's football franchise to integrate. Then-owner George Preston Marshall was perfectly content to play up the team's racist history, leaving it the last segregated squad in the league. He finally relented in 1962, not because of any change of heart, but after the John F. Kennedy administration threatened to refuse the team access to what is now called RFK Stadium, which was on federal land, unless it integrated. (Thomas G. Smith's "Showdown: JFK and the Integration of the Washington Redskins" is a good primer on the tale.)

So these 10 members of Congress hit on perhaps the best approach for getting Snyder to change his mind: not going after his sense of decency, but his bottom line.

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