National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell has been given an opportunity to end a more than two-decade fight over the Washington Redskins’ team name without having to address whether it is racist.
A U.S. Patent and Trademark Office appeal board yesterday canceled the trademark registration for the term “Redskins,” declaring it to be “disparaging” of native Americans.
While National Basketball Association Commissioner Adam Silver’s ousting of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling over racist remarks reflected a fervor for social equality, Goodell needn’t take that route, which would force the NFL to end its support for Redskins owner Daniel Snyder and the team’s name. Instead, the commissioner can focus on legal defeats in calling for change, said Rick Burton, a sports management professor at Syracuse University.
“The NFL as a league can save face by not discussing this in terms of racism, but in terms of legality and trademark protection capacity,” said Burton, a former commissioner of the Australian Basketball League. “This may be the loophole that the commissioner is able to use, that we can’t have a team that can’t protect its trademark.”
NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy declined to comment on the possibility of the league changing its stand because of the trademark issue.
A similar ruling canceling use of the Redskins nickname by the patent office’s Trademark Trial and Appeal Board was overturned on appeal in 2009, and this ruling also will be challenged, the team said. The trademark will remain intact until the legal review is complete.
Through their properties divisions, leagues, not individual teams, generally are the creators and keepers of legal actions related to logos and brands, said Andy Dolich, who was chief operating officer of the San Francisco 49ers from 2007-2010.
The NFL already is confronted with two significant lawsuits, one over concussions and another about how teams distributed prescription drugs to players through the past several decades, said Dolich, who has worked in all four major U.S. sports leagues.
“As headache No. 3, you’ve got the ongoing dispute of this name and what it means for all-inclusiveness and diversity,” Dolich said in a telephone interview. “That is not what you’d want as a leader of a league that’s struggling to be better than it’s been when there is a solution, which is change.”
Amy Trask, the former chief executive officer of the Oakland Raiders, called yesterday’s decision “a significant moment.” She said the greatest strength of the NFL owners, represented by Goodell, is the amount of pressure they can exert on another owner with whom they disagree.
“That is significant, significant pressure,” Trask, now an analyst for CBS Sports, said in an interview with Bloomberg Television. “When you’re in that room and there are 32 owners, if at some point 31 of them or even 24 of them say, ‘This isn’t OK,’ then Dan Snyder is simply going to have to decide, legal rights notwithstanding, if he wants to have issues with the other owners.”
The ruling is the most recent clash in a 22-year fight between the franchise and American Indians over the team’s name.
Founded in 1932 as the Boston Braves, the team was renamed in 1933 as the Boston Redskins in honor of its head coach, an American Indian, according to court records. The team moved to the District of Columbia in 1937. The Redskins ranked 10th in merchandise sales of the NFL’s 32 teams as of October, according to the league, which has about $9.7 billion in annual revenue. Merchandise revenue is shared equally among NFL teams.
The franchise ranked third in the NFL in August with a valuation of $1.7 billion, including $145 million attributable to its brand, according to Forbes.
The name has been an often-discussed topic in the team’s hometown over the last year.
U.S. President Barack Obama said in an October interview with the Associated Press that if it were his team, he’d consider a name change. Half the U.S. Senate last month urged Goodell to support a switch, citing Silver’s speedy action toward Sterling, and U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat from Nevada, said of the board ruling that “the writing is on the wall.” Former Virginia Senator George Allen, whose father was the Redskins’ longtime coach and whose brother, Bruce, is its president, has supported the status quo.
The patent office board determines only whether a mark can be registered with the U.S. government, not whether it can be used. The team may still have rights to the mark based on use, known as “common law” rights, and such rights may continue to exist even if a federal registration is canceled, the board said.
Ben Sturner, chief executive officer and president of New York-based sports and sponsorship firm the Leverage Agency, said the revenue generated by sales of Redskins gear isn’t significant enough for that aspect to become a big issue for the league’s other teams.
“Even without trademark protection, big companies aren’t going to risk intellectual property lawsuits that could happen,” Sturner said in a phone interview. “The money is too small to be made off of Redskins’ products to be worth it.”
What might be worthwhile for Goodell and the NFL is seizing this moment, the way the NBA’s Silver did after audio of Sterling telling a girlfriend that he didn’t want her bringing black people to Clippers games was posted on the website TMZ, said Burton, who also has served as chief marketing officer for the U.S. Olympic Committee.
“It’s the tipping point of an issue,” Burton said. “Now the court is involved. In the case of Donald Sterling, TMZ was the tipping point. In this case it’s the PTO.”
(A previous version of this story misidentified Harry Reid’s title.)