There is no pie so humble that Uncle Sam would not deign to put one of his fat and clumsy digits in it. It is not so much that we object to the opinions expressed by President Obama or Senator Reid regarding the name of Washington’s professional-football franchise, the Redskins, as that they believe the issue to fall within their portfolios as the chief executive of the United States government and the majority leader of the United States Senate, respectively. Adding to the already substantial body of evidence that there is no government agency that will not be put to use for the purposes of politics and culture war, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, through its Trademark Trial and Appeal Board, has taken it upon itself to revoke the team’s trademark on its logo in order to put commercial pressure on the organization, which now has limited legal recourse in pursuing the manufacturers of unlicensed Redskins merchandise.
Note that the Patent Office’s strategy assumes robust commercial demand for Redskins paraphernalia, which says something about the revealed preferences of NFL fans.
“Redskins” probably would not be the first name that a team would select in 2014, the word being widely regarded as an ethnic slur. Before they were the Washington Redskins, they were the Boston Redskins, and the Boston Braves before that. They are hardly alone in having an Indian mascot: Atlanta has its Braves, Cleveland its Indians, Kansas City its Chiefs. Duluth’s Eskimos, alas, went dodo in 1927. Indianapolis, unsurprisingly, has its minor-league Indians, as does Spokane, and even Juárez, Mexico, had its Indios. Florida State University has its Seminoles, with the blessings of tribal representatives. At least four American high schools field teams known as Aztecs, another four are Mohawks, and there are scores of Indians, Chiefs, Chieftains, Comanches, and Choctaws, along with 60-something teams called Redskins.
That sounds like a full-employment program for the grievance industry.
The Redskins ownership is apparently dug in, saying that it will not bow to pressure to change its name or its heraldry. As is usually the case with ethnic minorities, American Indians have a great many different opinions on the subject, though their self-appointed leaders are treated by the media as though they constituted a unitary representative point of view.
Some years back, a restaurateur in Bombay opened up an eatery called “Hitler’s Cross,” with precisely the sort of logo and decor one might expect from a place with that name. Swastikas are a common sight in the Hindu world, but context here is key, and there was no question about what was being communicated. The city’s tiny Jewish minority protested, vocally, and the owners apologized profusely, swearing — and we’ll withhold our judgment here — that they intended no offense, though precisely what it was they intended remains unclear. But the give and take of civil society was more than adequate to the task at hand, and good sense prevailed over bad taste.
“Redskin” may be used as a term of abuse in 2014, though it does not seem to be the case that teams with Indian mascots adopted them with a malicious agenda. Rather, early sports entrepreneurs seem to have been, like any number of 18th-century painters and 19th-century novelists, victims of an ancient sentimentality regarding the “noble savage,” the positive but nonetheless stereotypical qualities of whom were thought to be physical courage, honor, bodily endurance, etc. — the sort of thing that naturally appeals to a sports team in a way that the virtues associated with, say, Quakers (with all due respect to the teams of the University of Pennsylvania) or WASP bankers do not. Though the professionally aggrieved among us behave as though all of history should have been designed to unfold in such a way as to cause minimal discomfort to tender 21st-century sensibilities, it was not so designed. God help us if the atheists (or, depending on how you look at it, Christians) start noticing that all sorts of locales and public institutions bear distinctively Christian names, and we have to start rechristening every third city in the southwest: San Bernardino, Sacramento, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Santa Fe, Asuncion, San Antonio . . .
The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office is many things, including a money factory for opportunistic patent trolls and their legal enablers. It is not very well equipped, nor intended to function as, an arbiter of cultural disputes. We’d think that, with the world falling down around his ears, President Obama would have more-substantial concerns commanding his attention; it is our hope that Harry Reid will soon be returned to the minority and thus perhaps find himself with more free time on his plate, which he might fill up with such weighty matters as knitting or perhaps deepening his involvement in the literary arts of the American cowboy. If you think that the most objectionable thing about Washington, D.C., is the name of its football team, you are not paying attention.