A misconception has arisen in the days since the NFL franchise owned by Daniel Snyder secured a definitive legal victory in the longstanding challenge to its federal trademark rights. Many believe that Washington won the case because the U.S. Supreme Court deemed the name to be not offensive.
That’s not the case. The Supreme Court ruled only that the government has no right or duty to refuse or restrict trademark protection based on concerns that the protected name is or could be regarded as offensive.
The editorial board of the Washington Post recently explained the difference while reiterating its prior call to change the name.
“Mr. Snyder can call his football team anything he wants without fear of losing the valuable trademark protection that is key to merchandising revenue,” the editorial board wrote. “But just because the First Amendment gives him the right to use a racial slur, that doesn’t mean he should. Why would he even want to? We understand the affection Mr. Snyder and some team fans espouse for the history embodied in the name, and we have never thought there is racist intent when fans hail the team’s name.
“None of that, though, changes the inescapable fact that the name is one that no one with any real sense of decency would ever think to call a Native American to his or her face. It is degrading. It does real harm, particularly in psychological damage to Native American children and teens. It should be changed — and then congratulations will be in order.”
This is far from a case of political correctness run amok or non-Native Americans telling Native Americans what should offend them. A Washington Post poll from 2016, however flawed and criticized it may have been, still showed that roughly 10 percent of self-identifying Native Americans find the term objectionable. Even if that number is low, what other NFL franchise carries a name that reasonably offends 10 percent of the group to which it refers?
And, please, don’t dust off the tired old refrain that “Giants” may offend large people and “Vikings” can be construed as an insult those of Nordic heritage. No other NFL team has a name that also has become a dictionary-defined slur, even if the term was regarded as acceptable for decades.
Charles Krauthammer, a conservative commentator, explained in 2013 not as a matter of politics but as a matter of linguistics that societal norms have shifted in a way that makes the term no longer acceptable, like so many other terms that gradually went from O.K. to not.
Often lost in the knee-jerk, I’m-right-you’re-wrong debate over the name continues to be the fact that groups like the National Congress of American Indians strongly oppose the name. Those who defend the continued name, some of whom become very upset and irrational when doing so, often refuse to acknowledge that plenty of Native Americans find the name problematic, pointing instead to Native American friends, acquaintances, or co-workers who have said they’re fine with it.
PFT’s policy and practice on this issue has evolved over the past few years to this: Each writer can decide whether to use or not to use the name. I won’t dub anyone who chooses to use it or who defends its use as racist or wrong-headed; I simply choose not to use it because there actually are Native Americans who are offended by the term, and I choose not to use the term out of respect to those persons. The same First Amendment principles that allow all American citizens to use the term, and that allows one of them to profit handsomely from it via federal trademark protections, surely allow others to choose not to use it.