Implications Of The Washington Redskins Court Ruling
On Wednesday night a Virginia federal judge upheld the ruling that declared the cancellation of the Washington Redskins trademark registrations, effectively rendering their entire set of logos, images, and names public property. Their reasoning for the withdrawal of rights was that the name and imagery was found "offensive" and "disparaging" to the Native American population. Of course, Washington will continue to exhaust every appellate option, and through the legal battle they will maintain their rights, but this ruling has effectively set in motion a necessary and vital change to their football team's branding that will play out over the next few years.
This ruling does not affect the rights of the team to use the logo, but it does stop them from being able to regulate who can. Without a trademark on the material, anybody will be able to produce Redskins gear, Redskins merchandise, and Redskins promotional materials. The business of the team will be greatly diminished, and unless they change their name and branding, the Redskins will face a truly bleak future as a franchise. Without the ability to control the market of their team's goods, their income will rapidly decline and their finances will suffer, possibly to the point of bankruptcy.
Team owner Dan Snyder has declared he will "never" change the name, and will continue to fight this in every way possible. An understandable notion, yes, because a complete rebranding is not only expensive, but is also a very obvious sign of defeat, not to mention a killer blow to the team's public standing. This organization has held the name since 1933, back when they called Boston home and played alongside the Red Sox in Fenway Park, and despite many changes of locale, the team has kept the same title ever since. Snyder knows that the ruling will not come into effect until every appeal has been completed, so he has years to figure this out. The last thing he and the front office want to do is roll over and concede to the shifting public opinion.
So what's going to happen now?
As Snyder has hinted at, not very much for the next few years. Though this ruling is a huge step in the right direction for those who believe the name is offensive, and will likely be a day people look back at as a turning point, the legal quagmire ahead will ensure nothing happens immediately. Snyder is fighting a losing battle, but that doesn't mean he won't continue to wage it as vehemently as ever until the bitter end. Redskins President Bruce Allen has declared that,
"[All members of the Redskins organization] are convinced that we will win on appeal as the facts and the law are on the side of our franchise that has proudly used the name Washington Redskins for more than 80 years."
U.S. District Judge Gerald Bruce Lee's decision is a huge ruling, and in collaboration with the previous ruling by the Federal Trademark Trial and Appeal Board it represents the biggest blow to the Redskins organization since the first Native American activists, led by Suzan Shown Harjo, began petitioning for the team to change their logo in 1992. Lee's ruling thwarted the argument that this was a First Amendment violation by citing a Supreme Court ruling in June banning license plates in Texas bearing the Confederate Flag. This makes the Redskins' appeals increasingly difficult, but not impossible.
Washington will continue to pursue the rights to their name for years, even if they have to get more creative with their arguments. They have tried to prove that the term "redskin" is not an insult, but rather a means to honor Native Americans, and that they are perpetuating a positive image through their branding.
What implications does this have for the NFL?
This is another blow to the already damaged public opinion of the NFL. From the drawn out cases of Ray Rice and Ben Rothlisberger, to the cheating scandals of the Patriots, and the arrests of people like Aaron Hernandez, the NFL has had a rough couple of years to say the least. The last thing they want is a drawn out public battle over a racist moniker, yet that seems to be exactly what they are getting. Due to protection laws, all legal costs for the Redskins are covered by the league itself, so they will be implicitly linked with the Redskins fight to the very end.
The NFL needs this to be over with as soon as possible. If it can be settled and moved out of focus, it would benefit the league greatly. They continue to expand and improve television ratings, but the larger viewership just means more scrutiny on the players and the league. Last year's Superbowl was watched by a league record 114.4 million viewers (an all time television record). Advertisement costs rocketed to $4.5 million for a 30 second slot. With the entire nation watching, Roger Goodell wants nothing more than a reset this year, without the controversy and strife.
So there it is. The Redskins appear to be on a path towards the inevitability of change, despite how much they want to retain the antiquated name of a 20th century program. Though it may be 5, 10, or 20 years before we eventually see the results of this ruling, Washington will get there eventually. This double punch to Snyder's organization is just one more step towards progress, and it is becoming clearer by the day that he's fighting a losing battle. Now it's only a matter of time.