Cautious Optimism: The Washington Football Team’s Pledge to Review Its Racist Name

The Washington D.C. football franchise has announced “a thorough review of the team’s name,” long criticized as a racist slur against Native Americans. In the last week, majority owner Dan Snyder has received increased pressure to change the name from corporate sponsors (including Fed Ex, Bank of America, PepsiCo and Nike) as well as the NFL commissioner and the DC Mayor.   The  team’s name and logos have been the subject of organized protest and litigation by Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee) and other Native advocates for decades.  

Under the supervision of Prof. Victoria Phillips, the WCL IP Clinic has represented Harjo in the IP controversy surrounding the team’s disparaging trademark. Phillips noted this week, “I got involved in this issue as a trademark matter.  As I learned more and worked with Suzan, I got invested in it as a civil rights cause.  Sadly, most Americans don’t know a Native person so what they learn and believe about them is from the dehumanizing imagery peddled by professional, college and high school sports teams. The harmful stereotypes perpetuated by these racial slurs and imagery have a well-documented negative impact on the Native community — especially children.”  Her writings on the topic include Beyond Trademark: The Washington Redskins Case and the Search for Dignity [92 Chi.-Kent L. Rev. 1065 (2017)] and Missing the Point: The Real Impact of Native Mascots and Team Names on American Indian and Alaska Native Youth [Ctr. for Am. Progress (July 22, 2014)].  

On the fast moving developments brought about by corporate pressure this week, she added “ any change related to the Washington team is just the beginning.  Retiring the use of this slur is the powerful precedent needed to end the use of racialized names and imagery across all competitive sports.  As the nation reckons with racial injustice in its systems and symbols, it looks like that time may finally arrive.” 

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