The trademark registration for the Redskins football team was struck down today, a hearing board concluding that the name was, at heart, a racial slur.
To be eligible for U.S. registration, a trademark has to meet a number of rules. Among them, the name cannot merely be a slur or derogatory term. The Redskins name has an obvious problem in this area, so it was the right decision.
Some have suggested that today’s ruling won’t change anything. It is true that the football team continues to use the same name tonight. But for a couple of reasons, today’s ruling changes everything.
First there is the symbolic effect. A business that is ruled ineligible for the legal protections that other businesses enjoy is one step farther from being part of the community, one step closer to being part of the underground. That’s not necessarily a good thing for an entertainment business, where the business depends on being known and remembered.
Second, there is the merchandise. Without the trademark registration, it probably won’t be practical for the team or the league to prevent discount stores or street merchants from printing their own team T-shirts and other knockoff merchandise. For a league that brings in more from merchandise than it does from tickets, that is a distressing prospect. If one team’s knockoff merchandise gains a foothold in the marketplace, it is a problem the NFL and every team will be chasing down for the next two decades. To prevent this, the NFL urgently needs to get the Redskins team name changed. When a conflict pits one renegade team against the NFL’s profits, there can’t be much doubt about which side will prevail.
This is one of those moments of cultural change, when an error that has been out in the open for generations can suddenly change when a correct decision is made one day. The problem with the Redskins name has been considered before, but through tortured logic that is hard to explain today, the name was allowed to stand. Today’s decision is much simpler. The simpler answer, and its broad acceptance, is a sign of collective spiritual evolution.