Bob Franken: Playing defense in Washington

  • By Bob Franken
  • Saturday, June 21, 2014 5:04pm
  • Opinion

I usually hate gloating, but this time I’m doing it. And loving it. That’s because the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office panel has decided that the Washington NFL team no longer has federal trademark protection for its R-word team name. If this stands the test of lawyers, it will mean that the pro football franchise will no longer absolutely control the use of the name or the brand, because it’s “disparaging to Native Americans.”

So ruleth two of three members of the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board, which is the regulatory, uh, referee in such matters. But the call can be challenged in court and will be. Whatever schadenfreude some of us are experiencing needs to be tempered with the knowledge that owner Dan Snyder can hold up the enforcement of this for a long time and not only use the offensive brand whenever he wants to, but also continue to reap the monetary rewards from his control of it. In fact, this is not the first time and Patent and Trademark regulators have come to the same conclusion. But when they did it 15 years ago, they ultimately were overturned by a judge on a technicality. Snyder’s trademark attorney raced out a statement declaring, “We are confident we will prevail once again, and that the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board’s divided ruling will be overturned on appeal.”

Still, this latest action might cause Snyder to consider buckling under the pressure that is building as more and more of us are horrified by the use of a slur as the name for the football operation that represents our nation’s capital. This is a potential blow to the very most sensitive part of the owner’s body … his wallet. Native American complainants argue that the ruling “imperils the ability of the team’s billionaire owner to keep profiting off the denigration and dehumanization of Native Americans.” Indeed, he must suddenly face the possibility that he will no longer be able to demand money, huge sums of money, from anyone who decides to make commercial display of the logo or the name itself.

As always, he insists that the R-word is actually intended to honor Native Americans. Furthermore, he argues it is an essential part of a team with a proud tradition, neglecting to point out that, in fact, the tradition was heavily racist. The team was the last in the NFL to include black players, and then only grudgingly, after the threat of serious financial losses.

Snyder and his minions always cite polls that show a majority still favoring use of the R-word, but again we can learn from the past, and the time when most of those asked had no problem with the N-word and favored Jim Crow laws.

Until Snyder or the National Football League owners start feeling the squeeze or get tired of being compared to Donald Sterling and the NBA, this petty battle will continue. These are cynical people, accused, for instance, of hiding the dangers to the brains of the players of their violent sport. But hardhearted as they may be, even they might get weary of the growing calls for boycotts, which eventually would really damage their all-important bottom line.

That’s when we’ll see Snyder and the league magnanimously declare that they have decided that a name change is appropriate. Of course, they’ll come up with some sort of profitable way to make it happen, like a contest of one kind or another, but it will happen.

Then, Dan Snyder and his people can work on their other problem, which is the dismal record of the team during Snyder’s tumultuous ownership. There are any number of columnists and experts who believe that the franchise should not only scrub the stain of its name, but also jettison its owner. Then us local football fans can replace gloating with cheering.

Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.

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