NFL commissioner Roger Goodell was a little busy last week as he prepared to explain to an appeals judge his finger-in-the-wind decision process regarding the suspension and re-suspension of Baltimore running back Ray Rice.
Even so, Goodell must have noticed that one of the league's owners, Washington's Daniel Snyder, was suing five Native Americans for the crime of being upset about the "Redskins" team nickname. If he wins the suit, maybe Snyder can take their land and force them to live in a fenced-in section of the FedEx Field parking lot. Not much of a view, but, hey, no income tax.
The five activists, perhaps to their own surprise, won a ruling earlier this year from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office that canceled six of the team's trademarks that used the word "Redskins," with the ruling board stating it did so because the word was "disparaging to Native Americans."
Snyder can ignore petitions from Congress. He can ignore public opinion polls. He can, and has, ignored just about everything regarding objections to the team's nickname. But one thing Snyder can't ignore is a ruling that would make it possible for anyone to legally print and sell a sweatshirt that says "Washington Redskins." Without the trademarks, the team stands to lose millions in merchandise sales and that would be the final whistle on Snyder's pledge to keep the name.
So, the team is appealing the ruling. It could have gone a direct route and appealed to the Patent Office's Trademark Trial and Appeal Board, but Snyder's lawyers chose to take the case to U.S. District Court in Virginia instead. Judge Gerald Lee accepted the case, ignoring the objections of the five defendants that his was the wrong jurisdiction, and Lee's written decision is expected in a few weeks.
Unless the team's lawyers misread the legal landscape, which isn't likely, Lee's decision will overturn the patent office ruling and Snyder will reclaim his trademark rights and can happily continue making Redskins hats and shirts and moccasins and whatever else strikes his fancy.
As noted before, Goodell has other problems, such as keeping his job, and alienating owners is not at the top of his to-do list at the moment. But it is worth wondering, now that the NFL has developed such a strong social consciousness, when the league will take a moral stand on the issue of having a racial slur as a team nickname.
Last year, Goodell answered a petition signed by 10 members of Congress by stating that the Redskins name is a "unifying force that stands for strength, courage, pride, and respect." Well, that was some peace pipe he was smoking, but he was also operating from his own position of strength at the time. Things have changed for the league and for Goodell, and he can hardly hold the NFL to the highest standards on some social issues while accepting the lowest standards on others.
It doesn't matter if Snyder is able to find Native Americans willing to sit in the owner's box with him at games. It doesn't matter if various segments of the Native American population, for whatever reason, say they have no problem with the nickname. That isn't the test. The test is what is right and what is wrong, and in 2014, "Redskins" is wrong.
Snyder called the name a "badge of honor" in a letter to fans last year, but he might have to rethink that the same way Goodell rethought the two-game suspension he hoped would paper over Rice's elevator knockout of his then-fiancee.
Goodell changed his mind not when the nature of the offense worsened, but when a video of it surfaced that suddenly made his laughably light suspension bad for business. Sponsors were preparing to bail out on the NFL. Protesters were showing up at games. It was time for the NFL to get religion on the issue of domestic violence or lose money, so that's exactly what Goodell did. In this world, money equals motivation.
The Redskins will change their nickname only when the same economic forces are in play. The people who run the league are neither inherently good nor bad, but they are business people. If it's good for business, then it's good. If it's bad for business, then it's bad. All four points on the moral compass are marked with dollar signs.
If somehow the ruling that stripped the team of its trademark protection is ultimately upheld - and Snyder is prepared to drag this all the way to the Supreme Court, if necessary - then the "badge of honor," the "unifying force that stands for strength, courage, pride, and respect," would be tossed into a trash can the very next day.
That won't happen. The lawyers will win and the only thing that could alter the outcome would be a sudden change of heart by the league. It would take the commissioner standing up for something other than commerce. Don't hold your breath on that one. There isn't any video this time.