My dad, born and raised in the Titustown neighborhood of Norfolk Virginia, is a longtime Washington Redskins fan. So, it was no surprise that he was less than pleased when news first broke of the team’s potential name change, due to public backlash.
Yesterday, I gave him a call to get his thoughts on Judge Gerald Bruce Lee upholding a ruling Wednesday to terminate the Redskins’ trademark. My dad had quite a different response compared to his initial thoughts years ago.
“My position just changed over time,” he said. “There’s diehard Redskins fans in Virginia. Just being a fan with all the memories that I hold dear with the players I grew up idolizing it means something, but if a group of folks are telling you it’s offensive, you have to walk in their shoes.”
The two-decade old battle to cancel the Redskins’ trademark is a long way from actually banning the use of the name. The team can still use the Redskins name and image, and the cancellation of the trademark won’t take effect until team officials have exhausted the appeals process.
In a statement released Wednesday, Washington Redskins president Bruce Allen said the team would appeal the ruling and felt confident in winning the appeals process stating, “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.”
Federal trademark law does not permit registration of trademarks that "may disparage" individuals or groups and it’s hard to make the case that a name is not disparaging to a certain group just because you’ve used it for over eight decades.
There are several examples of schools and professional teams alike that have decided to change the names of mascots because they may be deemed offensive.
If you’re a long-time Atlanta Braves fan, you may remember beloved mascot Chief Noc-A-Homa. Noc-A-Homa was a big part of the team in the 1960s to the early 80s. Before each home game, the “Chief” would dress up in Native American costume and do a dance on the pitcher’s mound. Afterwards he would sit atop a tepee on a platform in left field where he would watch the game from the bleachers at good ol’ Fulton County Stadium. When the Braves would hit a homerun, Noc-A-Homa would come out of his tepee and do a “home run dance,” much to the delight of the crowd.
It was all in good fun for some, and for others extremely offensive.
In 1986, the Braves and Noc-A-Homa parted ways because of a dispute over contractual obligations. Levi Walker—the man behind the mask of Chief Noc-A-Homa—told ESPN.com contributer Doug Williams in 2012 that the Atlanta Braves were “overly sensitive about being politically correct.”
Braves’ fans pitched a fit, but with time, everyone moved on and focused on what actually mattered — the team.
In 1997, Miami University of Ohio changed its name from the Redskins to the Redhawks. The Redskins moniker stood at the school for over a century. Many at the time believed the name change was a loss of tradition and political correctness gone too far. I spoke with ESPN contributor and CNN contributor Terence Moore about his alma mater’s name change.
“I’m proud of my school in that respect,” Moore said. “My school was years ahead of its time.”
Once again the fan base, after the initial shock of course, focused on what was most important—the school and the team.
The Redskins’ branding and imagery has certainly come a long way over the years to suit a larger audience, but the name remains the same.
Change is hard for many to accept, but it is inevitable. Changing the name of a team or mascot is nothing new in modern-day society. Washington Redskin officials will most likely fight to keep its name through every legal loophole and avenue available, but it doesn’t make it right.
If a group of Native Americans are adamant that the term “Redskins” does not portray their culture in a positive light — and you oppose that notion — it’s time to start walking in a different pair of shoes.