What A Lawsuit Against The Redskins Could Mean For The Brand
Once again, the long-standing controversy over the name of the Washington Redskins is in the news. In May, 10 members of Congress sent a letter to the team's owner and several others urging a name change.
"The usage of [the R-word] is especially harmful to Native American youth, tending to lower their sense of dignity and self-esteem," the letter stated. "It also diminishes feelings of community worth among the Native American tribes and dampens the aspirations of their people."
A group of congressional lawmakers led by delegate to the House Eni Faleomavaega of American Samoa recently introduced a bill that would cancel new and existing federal registrations for trademarks that use "Redskins."
Another group of advocates for Native American issues has challenged the name in a case filed with the U.S. Trademark Trial and Appeal Board. The court case and the House legislation wouldn't prevent people from using the term "Redskin" in their businesses. Instead, both would stop the football team from exclusively using or profiting from the name.
After a hearing on the trademark case in March, Redskins General Manager Bruce Allen told reporters that the name isn't disparaging. The team posted a recent AP/GfK poll on its website showing that 79 percent of people who participated think the Redskins should keep the name. Eleven percent of poll respondents felt the name should be changed.
"We suspect that over half of the 11 percent that want us to change the name are [Dallas] Cowboys fans," said the team's spokesman in an email.
But the issue is no laughing matter for Amanda Blackhorse, who says the team should call itself something else.
"It's a derogatory, racial slur against Native Americans," said Blackhorse, part of the group that filed the suit challenging federal trademarks with the team's name. She says the plaintiffs have no interest in the money the football team has made. But until what she calls "institutional racism" stops, she doesn't "think that Native people will be respected."
"The Native people in this country don't have the economic or political clout that many other minority groups do," said Mike Wise, a sports columnist at The Washington Post. He strongly supports a name change, noting that the team wouldn't dare to call itself, say, the "Washington Blackskins."
John Maroon, who runs a Maryland PR firm, has worked for both the Redskins and the Cleveland Indians. He says he doesn't blame people for being offended by the Redskins name, but from a branding standpoint changing it would have serious implications for both the team and the NFL. He estimates a name change could cost the team and the league more than $20 million.
Others dispute that estimate. Ira Boudway made the case in Bloomberg Businessweek that changing the name could even be good for business. Boudway quotes Allen Adamson, managing director of the branding firm Landor Associates: "I think in the worst case it would be a break-even over a three- to five-year period. ... The financial excuse is not a good excuse."
But Redskins' owner Daniel Snyder says the franchise is standing its ground. "We'll never change the name," he told USA Today. "It's that simple. NEVER — you can use caps."
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
The name of the national football league team from Washington D.C., the Redskins, is under more intense scrutiny than ever. Ten members of Congress sent letters to the team's owner, to the NFL and FedEx, one of the team's sponsors, calling for a name change. There's also a pending lawsuit. But the team's owner says there are no plans to change the name. Here's NPR's Allison Keyes.
ALLISON KEYES, BYLINE: Even if the team loses an ongoing federal lawsuit, Redskins owner Daniel Snyder told USA Today Sports the team won't even consider changing the name. The team posted a recent national poll on its website that showed that 79 percent think the Redskins should keep its name. A spokesman told NPR: We suspect that over half of those who want the name changed are fans of the Redskins' archrivals, the Dallas Cowboys. But the issue was no laughing matter for Amanda Blackhorse, who says the team should call itself something else.
AMANDA BLACKHORSE: Because it's a derogatory racial slur for Native American people.
KEYES: Blackhorse and five others filed suit in 2006 seeking to cancel the Washington Redskins' federal registration of six trademarks using the term. She says the plaintiffs have no interest in the money the football team has made, but she says until what she calls institutional racism stops...
BLACKHORSE: I don't think that native people will really be respected.
KEYES: The Blackhorse case is the second lawsuit. The first was filed in 1992 by Suzan Harjo but was dismissed on appeal. The Cheyenne activist thinks people can be fans without supporting the team's name.
SUZAN HARJO: It's so simple. You don't have to embrace racism in order to keep having a good time.
KEYES: In March, a group of House lawmakers introduced a bill that would cancel new and existing federal registrations for trademarks including the word. Though neither the court case nor the House legislation would prevent anyone from using the term redskin in their business, both would stop the football team from exclusively using or profiting from the name. After a hearing on the trademark case in March, Washington Redskins' general manager Bruce Allen told reporters that the name is not disparaging.
BRUCE ALLEN: We're proud of our history, and we're proud of where we're taking the franchise, and we want to protect the game of football and this franchise for the fans and the players and the coaches.
KEYES: If the Redskins did change its name, it could cost the team and the league more than 20 million, says public relations expert John Maroon.
JOHN MAROON: Simply because you don't know what the reaction to your fan base is going to be.
KEYES: Maroon runs a Maryland PR firm and has worked for both the Redskins and the Cleveland Indians. He says he doesn't blame people for being offended by the Redskins' name, but from a branding standpoint, changing it would have serious implications for both the team and the National Football League.
MAROON: If you're Johnson & Johnson and you change your name to Smith & Smith, most people don't really care about that brand. Sports teams are different. There are emotions involved.
MIKE WISE: The native people in this country don't have the economic or political clout that many other minority groups do.
KEYES: Mike Wise is a sports columnist at The Washington Post. He strongly supports a name change and notes that the team wouldn't dare to call itself, say, the Washington Blackskins. Wise says fans he's spoken to are passionate and almost evenly divided. But...
WISE: It is amazing to me that there are so many people on the right and left in this town who whether they get behind their causes on either side of the fence almost claim ignorance on this issue.
KEYES: In May, Washington, D.C., Councilmember David Grosso introduced a resolution asking that the Redskins immediately change its name to the Redtails, in honor of the Tuskegee airmen. He told Fox 5 news.
DAVID GROSSO: It offends a whole bunch of people, and it's time for us to stand up and make a change.
KEYES: Both the NFL and FedEx say they will respond to the lawmaker's letter, but the Redskins' website notes that the people have spoken, and the team will never change the name. Allison Keyes, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.