In the ongoing saga over the Washington Redskins football team nickname, half of the U.S. Senate wants the team's nickname changed. But it is really a lesser-known government agency that could force owner Daniel Snyder to make a move.
On Thursday, the group of senators, all Democrats, wrote to National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell and asked that the league get Snyder to agree to a new team name that isn't a "racial slur."
The New York Times saw the letter, which was sent at the urging of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and reportedly not circulated to Republicans in the Senate.
The NFL told the Times that it hadn't yet seen the letter, but it had a response anyway. "The intent of the team's name has always been to present a strong, positive and respectful image," the league said in a statement. "The name is not used by the team or the NFL in any other context, though we respect those that view it differently."
Politicians like Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi have criticized the nickname, and President Barack Obama said last year that if he were Snyder, he would be pondering a name change for his team.
"I've got to say that if I were the owner of the team and I knew that there was a name of my team – even if it had a storied history – that was offending a sizable group of people, I'd think about changing it," Obama said last October.
At the time, the team issued a quick response.
"The Redskins respect everyone. But like devoted fans of the Atlanta Braves, the Cleveland Indians and the Chicago Blackhawks (from President Obama's hometown), the fans love their team and its name and, like those fans, they do not intend to disparage or disrespect a racial or ethnic group," team officials said in a statement.
But a lesser-reported story this month revealed a trademark dispute that could have a bigger impact on this debate than a war of words between politicians and publicity people.
On May 13, a U.S. appeals court upheld a decision to refuse a trademark for a website whose name allegedly insulted Muslims.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit said that, in the case of In re Geller and Spencer, there was found "substantial evidence" that a website called "Stop! Islamization of America" contained disparaging content, and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office Board was allowed to refuse a trademark to the website.
The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office is also considering a similar complaint filed against Snyder over the Washington Redskins nickname, and the court's ruling wasn't lost on legal experts following the nickname battle.
Other opponents are using a different tactic: attacking Snyder's ability to trademark the team's name. In 1999, the Trademark Board did rule in favor of taking the Redskins trademark away from the team in a case that started in 1992 called Harjo, et. al. v. Pro-Football, Inc.
The Harjo decision was later reversed, and the fight finally ended on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court in 2009, when the justices refused to hear an appeal.
In March 2013, another group was in front of the Trademark Board pursuing the fight again, this time in a case called Blackhorse et. al. v. Pro-Football, Inc.
The Blackhorse case could take years to move forward. But there is hope for the plaintiffs after the Board rejected several other trademarks recently that included the word "redskin." In December 2013, the PTO didn't allow a product called "Redskins Hog Rinds" to get a trademark.
And then in March 2014, the Board rejected a trademark for another product called "Washington Redskin Potatoes" related to "entertainment services" (and not potato or potato-related products). It marked the 12th time the Board has rejected the use of the word "redskin" in some context in 1992, on the grounds that the use insulted Native Americans.
An examining attorney was concerned about a potential false connection to the Washington football team, but also said "registration is refused because the applied-for mark includes matter which may disparage or bring into contempt or disrepute persons, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols."
The potential major problem for Snyder and the NFL is that if the team were to lose a trademark on its nickname, anyone could sell merchandise with the nickname without the NFL getting part of the proceeds. All 32 NFL teams share in merchandising proceeds, so the loss would be shared by Snyder's 31 compatriots.
The Washington team is an iconic brand in football and the most popular pro-sports team in the D.C. metro area. The team formerly known as the Boston Redskins moved to Washington in 1937; since that time, the organization won five NFL titles, including three Super Bowl wins.
Forbes Magazine ranks the Washington franchise as the third-most valuable team in the NFL at $1.7 billion. The current owner, Snyder, bought the club for $700 million in 1999.
Scott Bomboy is editor-in-chief of the National Constitution Center.
Philadelphia's National Constitution Center is the first and only nonprofit, nonpartisan institution devoted to the most powerful vision of freedom ever expressed: the U.S. Constitution. Constitution Daily, the Center's blog, offers smart commentary and conversation about constitutional issues in the news, drawing insights from America's history and a variety of expert contributors.