Can Social Media Pressure Outweigh the Law? #RedskinsOwnerMayFindOutTheHardWay

BY LAUREN GONZALEZ — A simple search on Google News, Twitter, Bing or any other search engine of the term “Redskins” will result in headlines such as “Redskins’ Owner Stubbornly Clings to Wrong Side of History from @NYtimes” and “Daniel Snyder again defends #Redskins name, even as his attorney hedges.”

The Washington Redskins, the second most valuable franchise in American football, may soon have to give in to the social media pressure to change its name and its logo to a brand that is more “politically correct.”

The logo, which features the profile of a Native American male complete with two feathers in his black hair, has recently been the topic of conversation in both sports and legal circles. Some find it to be a harmful form of ethnic stereotyping. Others believe that the logo and name honors Native Americans.

This controversy began as a legal battle in 1992 when the President of the Morning Star Institute along with several prominent Native Americans petitioned the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to invalidate the mark, challenging the mark on the premise that federal trademark law does not consider certain trademarks as legal if they are “disparaging, scandalous, contemptuous or disreputable.”1 After seven long years, judges canceled the federal trademark of the Redskin name.2 However, on appeal, the court reversed the decision on grounds of insufficient evidence of disparagement.3 If the court had upheld the trademark as canceled, the decision would have led the Redskins to lose millions in merchandise sales.

This past May, ten members of Congress sent a letter to the Redskins’ owner, the NFL Commissioner, a Redskins’ sponsor along with several others requesting that the name be changed.4 Dan Snyder, the Redskins owner, in a letter to fans published in The Washington Post on October 9, 2013, wrote that the name is meant to honor Native Americans and he did not plan to change the name of the team.5

What is the difference between now and 1992? It is the accessibility of news available via social media and the general norm that any person, from a sports broadcaster to a twelve-year old, can post their personal opinion for the world to see with a few simple clicks. This time around, not only are exponentially more people aware of this issue given the ease and availability of information, but individuals feel as though they can give their opinion readily, which leads to a ripple effect. In reaction to Mr. Snyder’s letter was a flood of angry tweets supporting the change of the Washington D.C. based football team’s name in addition to a growing number of mainstream media outlets that decided to boycott printing the word “Redskins.”6 7 8 Even President Obama issued a statement declaring that if he were the team’s owner, he would “think about changing it.”9

Although the Redskins’ owner won the legal battle over the trademark over a decade ago, this time it may not be a question of law but one of business. It is a known concept in business that companies who are perceived as “unethical” are likely to suffer in their sales. Social media has become an extremely powerful trigger for swaying individuals to view an issue a certain way. What this could mean is that social media may be turning what should otherwise be a by the books legal matter into a fight over race. Social media produces a ripple effect. When companies see that a great number of potential customers are on one side of the fence, they do not want to be seen on the other. This is why, given the explosion of tweets that the name is a racial slur, companies have responded by expressing their similar disdain and opinion of the matter over social media. When one company does this, others feel that it is appropriate to follow. The problem is that many individuals are basing their opinions on what they feel is right or wrong, not on any sort of legal premise. This, however, does not matter because the aggregate effect may be placing enough pressure on the team’s owner to change the name and logo because if enough people believe the mark is a racial slur, then keeping the mark could be a poor business decision.

What this means is that even if the Redskins’ trademark remained valid under federal trademark law and even if courts deem this name not to be discriminatory of a group of people, if the team owner decides to keep the name and logo as is, then the franchise may still stand to lose those millions of dollars in merchandise anyway. It will be interesting to see whether or not the increasing pressure mounting through social media will be enough to change a $1.7 billion dollar franchise.

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