From now on, when you think about the Washington Redskins, think Al Capone. Not in the illegal gambling/smuggling/prostitution/massacring sort of way, but in the mundane ways in which the mighty may fall.
In the end, the feds got Capone for income tax evasion and sent him to prison for eight years. The Redskins – the National Football League team with the racist nickname – has been tripped up not by public pressure or NFL rules or any spark of desire to do the right thing, but by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, whose appeal board on Wednesday canceled the trademark registration for the term “Redskins,” declaring it to be “disparaging” of Native Americans – which it plainly is.
The Redskins organization, which is grimly determined to hang on to this relic of an indifferent past, plans to appeal and it is not impossible that it will prevail. But change is simply a matter of time. If the name isn’t cast into the garbage heap of offensive names this time, it will be eventually. People are too smart, too aware of history for the long-term survival of this slur.
The problems are money and familiarity, along with a healthy dose of arrogance. Like all corporate brands, there is value in a name. Coca-Cola’s brand name, alone, has been valued at $102 billion, for example. There is an associated cost to changing a familiar name.
But there is also a cost to maintaining a name that is increasingly, and correctly, understood as insulting and offensive. Sambo’s Restaurants, a onetime chain whose name came not from the pejorative meaning of the word, but from portions of the names of its founders, nonetheless took advantage of the coincidence with racially insensitive references and soon found itself fending off lawsuits and being rejected in communities that objected to the name. Today, only the original restaurant remains.
No one would expect the Redskins organization to go the way of Sambo’s Restaurants, but there can hardly be doubt that the value of the name has been damaged as increasing numbers of Americans awaken to the fact that the familiarity of the team name does not make it any less objectionable. It may not have been recognized as such when the nickname was adopted in 1933, but standards evolve and people learn.
The Redskins’ name is profoundly offensive and the main obstacle to changing it is the intransigence of the team’s owner, Daniel Snyder, a man with no sense of propriety or perception, and who has vowed never to change the team’s name.
Still, Snyder is a businessman and if there is money in an existing name, there is also money in a new one. He can make an event of coming up with a new team name and, in the process, sell millions of dollars in newly branded memorabilia.
In the meantime, the NFL has a new lever to pressure Snyder into doing the right thing. Now it’s not a matter of history or tradition, but of courts and lawyers. It should use that leverage and be done with this fiasco.