The federal agency doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue — the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board. Nor is it an entity that often finds itself enmeshed in a hot-button political dispute. Yet Wednesday’s ruling by the board to cancel the Washington Redskins football team’s trademark protection for its nickname, on the grounds that it is disparaging to Native Americans, has brought attention to the obscure agency and its work.
Let’s set aside questions about whether we want the trademark board, a government agency, to be in the business of deciding what language is objectionable or offensive and which isn’t. (We, for one, think that’s a bad thing.) And let’s also acknowledge that the ruling is largely symbolic, with little practical impact. The NFL team intends to appeal the ruling, which will take years to play out, and the franchise can continue to market the full range of fine Washington Redskin products — coffee mugs, sweatshirts, bobble-head dolls, whatever.
One thing the ruling will undoubtedly do is to ratchet up the political pressure on the team’s owner, Daniel Snyder, to back down from his determination to preserve the team’s moniker. There will be more news conferences, more speeches on the floor of Congress, more calls for boycotts of the team.
The board did a fine job, in its 99-page decision supplemented with a 78-page appendix, of demolishing the case made by Snyder and his attorneys. The team argued that the word Redskins isn’t widely regarded as a slur by Native Americans or in the general lexicon of language and that it was a term that’s been perfectly acceptable to Native Americans until recently. Both of those contentions are demonstrably untrue, as page after page of evidence collected by the board made clear.
The team’s owner has sought to portray his fight as an example of standing up to the pressure of political correctness, of protecting the legacy of a beloved community institution. The truth is that Snyder’s position now reeks mostly of obstinacy and pride — even diehard fans know that.
What we’d like to see is for the Washington franchise and the National Football League, on their own, to change the team’s name. Not because of a ruling by a government agency. Not because the majority leader of the U.S. Senate continues to inveigh against them. And not because it’s a distraction to the team and its fans.
Because to not do so dishonors not just Native Americans, but all of us.