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The Demise of a Racial Slur

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The U.S. Patent & Trademark Office has cancelled the Washington Redskins' trademark registration, calling the football team's name disparaging to Native Americans. While this is the first step in what could become a lengthy judicial proceeding, it reflects a growing recognition in our country that we have begun to move beyond the racial slurs of the past. It is no longer acceptable in our multicultural nation to insult each other based on the color of our skin, our heritage, or our religion. If you have any doubt about this, just ask Donald Sterling.

I am sure that some commentators will opine that once again we are being overwhelmed by "political correctness." Would they turn back the clock to those days when we could discriminate against classes of people based on their race, gender, and ethnicity. Many can remember when American apartheid ruled our world. Were those really better times?

The Washington football team stands to lose financially if this decision is upheld in court, as do the other member clubs of the National Football League who share the revenue generated by all their trademarks. It won't take long for unlicensed users to flood the market with underpriced Washington paraphernalia.

As a matter of pure business decision making, it makes no sense for Washington owner Dan Snyder to ignore the entrepreneurial opportunity offered by this decision. Although he has stood steadfast behind the team's nickname, now is the time to reverse course. Imagine the good will that he could generate by holding a contest to select a new name for the Washington team. Think about the profits he could reap when that new name and logo appears across the nation on sweatshirts and gym shorts.

Even more importantly, Snyder now has the opportunity to get ahead of the bad publicity and get back to playing football. I have always thought that there would be a political solution to the nickname issue long before the trademark action had run its course. Last month 50 United States Senators signed a letter sent to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell urging that the League follow the lead of the NBA: "Today, we urge you and the National Football League to send the same clear message the NBA did: that racism and bigotry have no place in professional sports. It's time for the NFL to endorse a name change." The League responded by saying: "The intent of the team's name has always been to present a strong, positive and respectful image." The decision of the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office explains in great detail why that is not the case. The NFL, a League that once banned players of color as baseball once did, does not want to be left behind on this issue, especially when it is so easy to fix.

If you have any doubts on the issue of disparagement, simply substitute a group of which you are a member for the reference to Native Americans. Even put aside the disgusting reference to the purported color of the skin. Might you have any problems with a football club named the Washington Jews or the Washington Catholics? Would you respond, as Commissioner Goodell did last year, that the name was "a unifying force for strength, courage, pride and respect?"

Sports are important in our society, and in Washington no sport is as important as football. I recall attending a social event in a congressman's home when I interned in the District in 1966. That Friday night in August Washington was playing a pre-season football game. The large crowd in attendance stopped their small talk and gathered around the television sets to watch their beloved football team play a meaningless practice game. They were -- and are -- devoted to their hometown squad, but not to its despicable nickname that ridicules other Americans. It is time to remove such a reference from the public discourse.

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