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What A Lawsuit Against The Redskins Could Mean For The Brand

Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder has vowed to never change the team's name.
Manuel Balce Ceneta
Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder has vowed to never change the team's name.

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."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Allison Keyes is an award-winning journalist with almost 20 years of experience in print, radio, and television. She has been reporting for NPR's national desk since October 2005. Her reports can be heard on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition Sunday.
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