WASHINGTON >> The Washington Redskins aren’t in the clear with their team name just yet, even after the Supreme Court ruled today that the government can’t block trademarks on the basis that they’re offensive.
Supreme Court precedent may help the club in its ongoing legal battle, but the fight over the Redskins moniker will continue in social and business realms. The Redskins, Cleveland Indians with their “Chief Wahoo” logo and other professional and college organizations featuring Native American nicknames and mascots cannot be censored by the U.S. government, but that doesn’t take the pressure off.
“Just because the Redskins may believe they’re in the clear or the Cleveland Indians or even some collegiate teams (think) they’re in the clear, that doesn’t mean that those that do business with the team, including its sponsors, are going to take their foot off the gas if they believe change is really required,” USC professor of sports business David Carter said. “A positive legal ruling may not yield beneficial business impacts in and around the sports business world because we’ve seen a heightened sensitivity over the years with this topic.”
The Supreme Court found that Simon Tam could trademark the Slants as the name of his Asian-American rock band because it would be unconstitutional for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to discriminate against it, citing the First Amendment’s free speech protection.
The Redskins have a separate case that had been on hold in federal appeals court while the Slants decision was rendered. Owner Dan Snyder said he was “thrilled” by the ruling, and lawyer Lisa Blatt said it resolves the team’s dispute and vindicated its position.
St. John’s University intellectual property law center director Jeremy Sheff said while the Supreme Court has essentially shut the door on legal challenges to the Redskins name, “there can still be social pressure brought to bear.”
The Change the Mascot campaign released a statement saying it never believed this would be settled in a courtroom. But just as the Indians receive blowback for Chief Wahoo and schools like the University of North Dakota, Miami of Ohio and others moved away from Native American mascots, public opinion won’t simply sway one direction because of the Supreme Court’s decision.
“That doesn’t necessarily reflect what people in the marketplace feel, so if students at a university don’t like their slogan, mascot or trademark and/or the marketplace — those who purchase tickets or support the athletic programs or the university in general — I think will still be a driver on what is acceptable and what is not,” said Brian LaCorte, a Phoenix-based lawyer for Ballard Spahr. “It will become I think a point for the consumer marketplace to define parameters.”
Last September, Forbes said the Redskins were the fifth-most valuable team in the NFL at $2.95 billion. As Carter pointed out, “The Redskins are a historic, an endemic brand, a presence” in the Washington area, and neither their name nor their lack of recent playoff success has hurt their popularity.
A recent Washington Post poll found that 90 percent of 504 Native Americans surveyed nationwide did not think the Redskins name was offensive, and that likely had more sway on the opinions of undecided people than the Supreme Court ruling. The next place for this argument very well may be the team’s effort to get a new stadium, and Carter said politicians could use it as a part of the negotiation if taxpayer money is involved.
“If Daniel Snyder wants to get any public dollars for a new stadium, the likelihood of him being able to accomplish that in this environment is really slim until or unless he changes the name of the team,” Carter said. “I think it’s going to boil down to money and what will the trade-offs be.”
If Virginia, the District of Columbia or Maryland approve public money for a new Redskins stadium, Carter said that would be considered “a tacit endorsement that it is OK to keep the name.”