The Name Game

Morgan O'Rourke


October 1, 2014

These days it's tough to be a fan of the NFL. The problem is not so much  about the game on the field (although my New York Giants will probably be pretty bad this year), but what has been happening off of it. The list of controversies surrounding the league seems to grow every day. Concussion lawsuits. Recreational and performance-enhancing drug use. Domestic violence and child abuse scandals. Player and owner suspensions. The list goes on.

Add to that the ongoing debate about the Washington Redskins' team name and whether it should be changed because of what many perceive to be its racist connotations. The argument dates back decades, but was most recently brought into focus in June when the U.S. Trademark and Patent Office cancelled the team's trademarks on the grounds that "a substantial composite of the Native American population found the term 'Redskins' to be disparaging." The team is appealing the ruling. While the decision does not require a name change, it does mean that the team will not be able to protect itself against copyright infringement. Any company will therefore be able to sell unlicensed Washington Redskins merchandise without fear of legal reprisal.

Despite the setback, team owner Dan Snyder remains adamant the he will not make any changes. "We will never change the name," he told the USA Today in 2013. "It's that simple. NEVER—you can use caps." His position is that the name has existed since the team's inception in 1932 and is intended to honor Native Americans. Public opinion supports this view: 71% of Americans and 58% of NFL players favor keeping the current name, according to recent polls.

Nevertheless, opposition is growing. Seven out of 10 Americans may still support the name, but that number has fallen from 89% in 1992 and 83% earlier this year. Politicians have weighed in, with President Obama suggesting that he would think about changing the name if he owned the team, and a group of 50 U.S. Senators sending a letter to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell in May asking him to endorse a name change to show that "racism and bigotry have no place in professional sports." Further, various media organizations, including hometown paper the Washington Post, have said that they will limit or stop using the name altogether when reporting about the team. Perhaps most importantly, many Native American tribes and advocacy organizations consider the word to be a slur and have voiced their opposition.

While it is Dan Snyder's right to call his team whatever he wants, from a risk management perspective, it seems that keeping the name has become detrimental. Last year, Washington Redskins merchandise sales fell by 35%, the sharpest decline in the league, according to SportsOneSource. The analyst attributed this drop to the racism controversy (although the team's 3-13 record probably also had something to do with it). While this is spare change for a team that Forbes valued at $1.7 billion—the third-highest in the league—it is a trend worth noting.

A name change would not be unprecedented. Many teams, particularly at the college level, have changed their Native American-themed names and mascots. While a such a change might incur its own costs, the increased good will-as well as the new merchandise sales-could prove invaluable.

In the end, whether or not one considers the name offensive, traditions change, and calling yourself something that now offends 30% of Americans and a good portion of media and government is not smart business. After all, standing on your principles only makes sense when your principles are worth standing on.

Morgan O’Rourke is editor in chief of Risk Management and director of publications for the Risk & Insurance Management Society, Inc. (RIMS)