Washington Redskins Name Controversy: Is the Team Facing a Name Change?

Some transitions are smooth. Like going from backyard barbecues and picnics to stocking provisions for your favorite tailgating recipes. Football season is sneaking up on us!

Other transitions are a bit rockier. Like the Washington Redskins name change. Or lack thereof. While it might surprise many of us, a change has still not been made to the Washington Redskins name.

The Washington Redskins Name Controversy

According to a Washington Post article, Daniel Snyder, owner of the NFL team seems to think that people who are concerned with the name are “missing the point.” However, many others vehemently disagree and consider the name to be a racial slur against Native Americans.

CBSSports.com reports that both President Obama and United States Attorney General Eric Holder believe that it’s time for a name change. In a move that is gaining momentum with several publications, the Washington Business Journal announced that it will no longer use the Redskins name and instead will call the team the “Washington NFL” or the generic “football team.” In the announcement, the publication then called on Snyder for a team name change.

A Boston Globe article stated that the paper will continue to use the name, but also called on Snyder to change it, stating that, “Publications and broadcasters shouldn’t have to choose whether they’re going to use it.”

In a video interview on MSNBC, Jordan Wright, the granddaughter of the team’s original founder and owner has even given her support to change the name.

Still developing is whether or not the name will be used for a November 2nd game with the Minnesota Vikings. The teams are scheduled to play on the University of Minnesota campus. Minnesota has a “significant Native American population” according to The Christian Science Monitor article and the President of the University says that, “using the name would violate school policies on equity and diversity.”

The most compelling reason for a legal name change should be based on statements by Native Americans. The national campaign called Change the Mascot was launched by the Oneida Indian Nation “to end the use of the racial slur “redskins” as the mascot and name of the NFL team….”

Further, a Slate article reports that the Oneida Indian Nation and the National Congress of American Indians have sent letters to Twitter, Facebook, and Google stating that the football team’s name is “abusive hate speech” and that the “verified Twitter, Facebook, and Google Plus accounts be removed.”

Trademark Cancellation

In the United States, according to the International Trademark Association, “a party that believes that it is damaged by a registration may file a Petition for Cancellation with the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB). The TTAB is the administrative tribunal that hears and decides oppositions, cancellations and appeals of final refusals issued by examining attorneys.”

In June 2014, the TTAB found that “the term “Redskins” was disparaging of Native Americans, when used in relation to professional football services, at the times the various registrations involved in the cancellation proceeding were issued. Thus, in accordance with applicable law, the federal registrations for the “Redskins” trademarks involved in this proceeding must be cancelled.”

However, a trademark attorney for the team stated that the team will be appealing the decision and that they are confident of ultimately prevailing as they have done in the past. The team still has trademark protection during the appeal process, so until the case winds its way through the courts, there will be no definitive answer.

Brand Recognition, Trademark Protection & Social Change

Most established businesses, large or small, make great effort to create brand awareness through consistent use of logos with their name. The names and logos are usually legally protected with a registered trademark. Creating brand recognition takes time, so it is not something that should be changed often.  When Tropicana tried to rebrand their orange juice packaging, sales plummeted and it was “a customer-relations fiasco” according to Advertising Age.

A SmartPlanet article analyzed some failed attempts at rebranding. The University of California’s new logo was compared to “an egg yolk swirling around a toilet bowl.” The Gap’s brief logo change is one for the history books. All these brands ended up returning to logos that were tried and true.

However, there is a difference between making a logo change for aesthetic reasons and making a change in order to address new societal norms relating to particular racial or ethnic groups.

Aunt Jemima is one of the most recognized brands in the world and its history has spanned over 120 years. It’s quite an understatement to say that things have changed for African Americans in that period of time. The Quaker Oats Company’s first registration of the Aunt Jemima trademark was in 1937. The image has been updated over time, however the name is still a throwback to older times and some of us may still cringe when hearing the name.

Similarly, the football team’s name and logo may have been more widely accepted decades ago than it is now. Increasingly people of all races are offended by the team name and the mascot. It’s not clear why the owner is so resistant to trying something new. At the very least, it seems to make good business sense to change it.

In this situation, rebranding the team with new trademarks would only seem to benefit the franchise. There is public goodwill ready for the taking with a voluntary name change. Football season is a long one, so this issue will no doubt be raised repeatedly over the coming months.

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This portion of the site is for informational purposes only. The content is not legal advice. The statements and opinions are the expression of author, not LegalZoom, and have not been evaluated by LegalZoom for accuracy, completeness, or changes in the law.

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