*Correction: The original version of this article originally identified Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's political affiliation as Republican. The post was updated Sept. 8 to reflect this.
Fall is coming to Washington, which means the zealous sports talk is headed for a crescendo, as the town enjoys few things more than exercising its passionate rooting interest. Of course, it would be a relief if the talk were actually about football; instead the capital is busy continuing to grapple over The Name Game.
Washington loves its football team heart and soul, but many in policy circles hate the name “Redskins,” which has, for some time, left lots of folks yearning for a day when the phrase “offensive line” refers once again only to protecting the quarterback.
From the president to the Senate majority leader to a former FCC chairman, the push to rename the team has gathered steam, aided most recently by a Patent Ofﬁce decision to rescind federal protection for the Redskins trademark.
President Obama has said that if he were the owner of the team he would “think about changing [the name].”
The team did not respond to a request for comment, but a YouTube video appeared within the past few weeks featuring various Native Americans defending the name as something to be proud of. A new website, RedskinsFacts.com, has also been launched with the team’s support by former Redskins players defending the name and logo.
Arguably the loudest voice for changing the name has been D.C. attorney John Banzhaf, who helped sue tobacco ads off the air in the late 1960s and has been periodically trying to get the team to drop the name for about as long.
Most recently, however, former FCC chairman Reed Hundt (pictured) has led a charge to get the FCC to pressure the team and its ownership.
Hundt told B&C in April 2013 that if broadcasters didn’t stop using the name, the FCC should “actively investigate” whether its use constituted indecency.
This past June, Hundt took another tack, saying the FCC may want to take away team owner Daniel Snyder’s radio station licenses if he doesn’t change the name. Snyder’s Red Zebra Broadcasting owns seven radio stations.
“An insult to one race ought to be regarded as an insult to all races,” Hundt told B&C last week. “It is important for broadcasters, with or without nudging from the FCC, to establish certain principles of decency in our culture. I don’t think that the FCC needs to dictate precisely what words ought to be on the air. But I do think broadcasters ought to be encouraged to think about certain standards of decency in normal discourse that should preclude the use of racially derogatory terms. In my opinion, you should, as the FCC chair, draw attention to topics, and you should do the nudging.”
Banzhaf also conﬁrmed to B&C he is pondering various scenarios for challenging Snyder’s station licenses.
What’s in a Name
The current FCC chairman and all but one commissioner declined to comment on their view of the name or whether they see any FCC role. But Democratic commissioner Jes- sica Rosenworcel told B&C she believes the name is offensive to a number of people and she has “concerns” about it.
Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has also been calling for the name change, citing the 27 tribes he represents in his home state. Reid was one of 50 Senators who used the NBA’s expulsion of Donald Sterling over racist comments to argue in a letter to the NFL that the league should use the conversation about race prompted by that move to expunge the Redskins nickname from one of its “marquee” franchises.
In June, Redskins president Bruce Allen invited Reid to a team event; the senator’s answer was short, but not sweet. “I will not stand idly by while a professional sports team promotes a racial slur as a team name and disparages the American people,” he told Allen in a letter. “Nor will I consider your invitation to attend a home game until your organization chooses to do the right thing and change its offensive name.”
Adding fuel to the name change ﬁre was the U.S. Patent and Trademark Ofﬁce ruling in June that “Redskins” is disparaging to Native Americans. The agency then withdrew federal protections for associated trademarks.
The USPTO decision is important and symbolic, but it doesn’t require the team to change its name or stop using the trademarks. It does, however, mean that the franchise loses the legal presumption of ownership, the ability to use the registration symbol, or to be able to get the Customs and Border Patrol service to block importation of counterfeit goods into the country.
The team is ﬁghting the decision, as it did a similar 2003 USPTO action that was overturned by the courts.
Meanwhile, The Washington Post will not be using the name. Last week, the Post announced it had decided against using the term “Redskins” on its editorial page, likening it to other “offensive” vocabulary absent from its pages.
Bound to Repeat
The Redskins have a history of being slow to change in the face of shifting racial sensitivities. The team’s ownership for years famously refused to sign black players long after other teams dropped their discriminatory policies (Washington was the last NFL team to integrate, in 1962), prompting the late Washington Post sportswriter Shirley Povich to mock the team in a 1960 column on the success of Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown. “From 25 yards out, Brown…integrated the Redskins’ goal line with more than deliberate speed, perhaps exceeding the famous Supreme Court decree,” wrote Povich with obvious relish, “and the Redskins’ goalline, at least, became interracial.”
Prompted by the cancellation of the Redskins trademark and calling the name change push a trivial, politically motivated ﬁght, the Constitutional Rights PAC launched an online petition to change the team name to the Washington Tea Party. The PAC said the Democrats in the Senate have “blown this issue out of proportion, and made it more political than anyone could have ever anticipated.” Looking to tweak those pols, the PAC asks: “Which name do you think the left will ﬁnd more offensive: The Redskins or The Tea Party?”
Despite the noise, Snyder has gone on record, telling ESPN that he believes the name is one of honor and respect. “We sing, ‘Hail to the Redskins, braves on the warpath, ﬁght for ol’ D.C.,’” he told the network last month. “We only sing it when we score touchdowns. That’s the problem, because last season, we didn’t sing it quite enough.”
Perhaps, but even once remains too much for many in this football-mad town.