In a move that should surprise nobody, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has sided with owner Dan Snyder in the naming controversy of the Washington Redskins. In May, ten members of Congress sent a strongly worded letter to Snyder, Goodell, and other NFL owners imploring them to change the name of the Redskins to promote racial sensitivity. In a letter dated June 5th, Goodell wrote the group back defending the team name, calling the Redskins “a unifying force that stands for strength, courage, pride and respect.” The commissioner added that the Washington nickname “from its origin represented a positive meaning distinct from any disparagement that could be viewed in some other context,” and was never “meant to denigrate Native Americans or offend any group.”
According to Erik Brady of USA Today, Goodell’s letter “cited opinion polls suggesting that the public at large, and many American Indians, are not offended by the name. He also cited a court ruling that upheld use of the name in a trademark disparagement case.” There is an additional case currently being reviewed by the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board which could eliminate exclusivity rights for the name of the team.
Goodell had previously remained neutral with his public responses to the controversy. During the Super Bowl week, Goodell spoke to both sides of the issue:
“Growing up in Washington, I do understand the affinity for that name with the fans. I also understand the other side of that. I don’t think anybody wants to offend anybody. This has been discussed several times over a long period of time. I think Dan Snyder and the organization have made it very clear that they’re proud of that heritage and that name and I believe fans are, too.”
With this letter, Goodell makes it clear that the NFL has Dan Snyder’s back. Serving as the representative of a multi-billion dollar product, Goodell was unlikely to agitate for social change; there’s simply too much money at stake. Still, citing public opinion polls and an old trademark case is a weak defense of the Redskins name. Whether a majority of Americans find the name offensive or not is inconsequential to the issue of whether nickname offends a specific ethnic group. Goodell speaks of “exemplifying the values of diversity,” but refuses to address the very real concerns of Native American groups that have expressed offense at the Washington team name. Instead, these people have been marginalized by being pigeon-holed as “the minority” when in fact it is not known by anyone how a majority of Native Americans feel.
As I have stated before, the best chance of a name change in Washington will come from the case currently under review by the TTAB. If the “Redskins” are not a protected brand, Snyder figures to lose millions of dollars in exclusive rights. His bravado in never changing the name would be put to the test. However, this letter makes it clear that change will not be coming from the league office. Goodell has chosen to defend “the shield” by protecting the name of one of its most expensive brands. His actions are not surprising, but are still disappointing.