A football team by any other name

football-clip-art-aTeEjM8T4-2It’s football preseason time. A year ago, I wrote here about building momentum for changing the Washington professional team’s offensive name. “[Owner Dan] Snyder is ultimately losing the public relations battle,” said Zach Stoloff of the New England Sports Network, one of a bunch of sportswriters and editorialists who had spoken out against the name.

Though Snyder is obstinate, of course, this bandwagon has only picked up speed in the past 12 months. A partial summary:

–In September, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell shifted his stance. Only three months earlier, he’d defended the name to members of Congress; now he said on sports radio WJFK-FM, “We have to do everything that’s necessary to make sure that we’re representing the franchise in a positive way . . . and that if we are offending one person, we need to be listening and making sure that we’re doing the right things to try to address that.” Days later came an(other) editorial in the Washington Post and a protest by the Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin.

–In October, President Obama added to the chorus (though mildly, befitting a sitting president) when he said, “If I were the owner of the team and I knew that there was a name of my team—even if it had a storied history—that was offending a sizable group of people, I’d think about changing it.”

–In February, the San Francisco Chronicle joined Sports Illustrated’s Peter King and USA Today’s Christine Brennan, among many others, in saying they’d no longer use the official name.

–In May, after Majority Leader Harry Reid called on Snyder from the Senate floor to change the name—and released a letter with signatures from half the Senate saying the same—the team foolishly called via Twitter for followers to strike back. Instead, the team “ended up with an interception,” said the Wall Street Journal, when immediate response agreed with Reid.

–In June, the United Church of Christ’s regional governing body (180 congregations, 40,000 members from Richmond to New Jersey) voted unanimously to ask members to boycott the team name and gear. The issue then went to the church’s national governing body: 5,100 congregations, 1 million members. Meanwhile, a California tribe paid for a protest ad to run during TV broadcasts of the NBA’s championship series in eight major cities. The ad won major media praise.

June was a busy month. In more media news, the Seattle Times decided not to use the team name at all (previously it had used it once per story for reference). It cited most of the list of newspapers I had as well as the Orange County Register and the Salt Lake Tribune.

And the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office canceled six of the team’s trademark registrations, calling the name disparaging. The decision didn’t force a change—some legal authorities said it had little effect at all—but it did dilute the team’s legal protection against infringement, which may mean a hit in the wallet. The team’s lawyer said he plans to appeal the decision, which could take years, and during that process the registrations will remain effective.

–In July, Attorney General Eric Holder weighed in on the talk show This Week: “The name ought to be changed. It’s an offensive name. … It’s a team with a storied history that has huge amounts of support in Washington, DC, and in the 21st century they could increase their fan base, increase their level of support, if they did something that from my perspective that is so obviously right.”

So did U.S. District Court Judge Peter Messitte of Maryland, presiding over a lawsuit against the local team (on a different matter) by New York Giants linebacker Barrett Green. In a footnote early in his ruling, Messitte stated: “Pro Football’s team is popularly known as the Washington ‘Redskins,’ but the Court will refrain from using the team name unless reference is made to a direct quote where the name appears.” Instead, he would use the term “the Washington Team.”

Added the Post, “The note comes months after Messitte ordered attorneys in the case not to use the team’s name in his courtroom, according to one of the lawyers.”

Also in July, “CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus said that … during the upcoming season individual announcers and production teams could make their own decisions about whether to say” the name. McManus acknowledged to the Hollywood Reporter that the controversy was “reaching a hotter level,” and the story noted that ESPN and probably CBS (home of Bob Costas) had had high-level discussions about use of the team name.

–Now in August, Governor Martin O’Malley of Maryland, where the team plays home games, had this to say to a TV interviewer: “We hope that in every generation we become more understanding of one another, more inclusive as a people, and more respectful of the dignity of every individual and every culture, so I think it probably is time for the Redskins to change their name.” O’Malley will step down in January, but his likely successor, Anthony Brown, has publicly supported a name change, too.

The Insultingly Named, Obnoxiously Hyped Washington NFL Franchise isn’t having a great year even before playing one game. I could say that’s par for the course—but that would be mixing metaphors as well as piling on.

Copyright 2014 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

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