We seem to be in the Re-litigation Age – or, perhaps, in an era of having government agencies gain political points via radical rulings, then letting the courts put things back together after the dust clears. On second thought, maybe we’ve just gone back to when Vikings or red Indian raiders swooped in without warning to pillage and despoil. Whatever the new age is, it’s certainly not aligned with the Marquis of Queensbury rules for gentlemanly combat. No, the gloves are off, and hitting below the belt is passé.
I say all this because last week the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board, an arm of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, voted to cancel six trademarks held by the Washington Redskins NFL franchise. This happened once before, in 1999, when the Clinton administration’s Trademark Board similarly canceled the Redskins’ trademarks. That ruling occasioned an expensive four-year legal battle that culminated in a federal court’s reversal of the Trademark Board’s ruling. Notwithstanding that definitive court decision, the Patent Office has launched yet another strike on the ‘Skins, much to the delight of the media’s self-styled guardians of racial correctness. Numerous sportscasters have piled on as well.
Polls show that the Redskins’ name is #118 or #119 on a list of 100 concerns regarded as important by the general public. OK, I made up those numbers, but polls do indeed show that a mere 10% sliver of the general public – and a nearly as small faction of American Indians – care about this issue. Why, then, is a federal agency spending valuable time and resources on it – particularly when a court has previously ruled that the team has the right to own the trademarks for this name? Clearly, the fate of the empire does not rest on government action here, so there must be more to it than assuaging the offended sensibilities of Mohawks, Cherokees or Sioux (if any). (At this writing the Mohicans have not been heard from.)
A close acquaintance of mine is fond of saying, “When you hear somebody say, ‘It’s not the money…’ you can be sure that it is the money.” Money hasn’t been mentioned in the Redskins case, but it definitely underlies the whole business, as is usually true in controversial commercial cases like this.
Recall the recent case of Donald Sterling, owner of the L. A. Clippers NBA team, who apparently made some crude, racially-charged remarks in a private conversation with his girlfriend, who recorded it without Mr. Sterling’s knowledge. Release of the recording produced a great media furor, prompting NBA Commissioner Adam Silver to righteously announce that Mr. Sterling would be fined $2.5 million for “conduct detrimental to the league,” and banned from the NBA for life. Mr. Silver also intimated that Mr. Sterling might be required to sell his team to a new owner.
All this drama seemed to proceed from an admirable sensitivity to racism – real or imagined – until sharp-eyed observers noticed that a queue of would-be Clippers owners was quietly forming up to snap up the team, hopefully at a fire-sale price, once the other team-owners voted (as expected) to make Mr. Sterling sell. The owners-in-waiting reportedly included Hollywood moguls, sports stars, rappers, and other assorted racialist scavengers. Once it became obvious that the whole episode was basically an attempt to strong-arm Mr. Sterling into selling his team at a bargain-basement price, Big Media quickly lost interest and the bogus racial scandal faded from the headlines. Using racial-sensitivity as cover for a sordid takeover attempt is evidently not quite the kind of “news that’s fit to print” preferred by the New York Times and other organs of the Mainstream Media.
Although the 80-year-old Mr. Sterling had been snookered by his traitorous 30-something girlfriend, he was still sharp enough to outwit the takeover move by transferring the ownership of his team to his wife. As the league has no grievance against Mrs. Sterling, it will be difficult – if not impossible – to force her to sell out. At the very least, she can hold out for a fair price. Mr. Sterling has also initiated legal action against the NBA that threatens to tie up the league for some time to come. All of this shows that it’s wise to know who you’re messing with before you try to hustle a rich guy – even an old one.
In the case of the Redskins’ “racially offensive name,” an attempt to bully principal owner Dan Snyder into selling out has not yet emerged. That’s unlikely, despite Mr. Snyder’s stubborn refusal to bow to media pressure and ditch the name. But every mogul has enemies – if for no other reason than his wealth – and often those enemies play dirty. The loss of the Redskins’ trademark rights – if it stands – will constitute a financial injury to the team, since outside parties could then sell products using the name and other symbols without paying royalties that would otherwise be due under trademark law. Mr. Snyder evidently has no intention of permitting this. Indeed, it would be amazing if he did.
Any business – e.g., car-makers, clothing manufacturers, publishers, etc. – would find the loss of their trademark-rights intolerable. Thus, the revocation of trademarks by an agency of the U. S. government, on extremely questionable grounds, should be a headline event. In normal times, media commentators and politicians would be shouting from the housetops about it. But these are not normal times. Instead, many media organs are silent, or else actually supportive of this highhanded abuse of government power. Fear of being called “racist,” I ween, has cowed the watchdogs that should be guarding against governmental overreach. With few coming to his aid, Mr. Snyder is on his own. (But I think moguls are used to this.)
So far, the motivations in the campaign to scalp the Redskins seem to be political and low-level financial. Democrats and the Obama administration are certainly delighted to find a news event diverting media attention away from Iraq, Iran, Russia, the Ukraine, and Syria – not to mention from nettlesome scandals like Fast-and-Furious, IRA corruption, and NSA overreach. From a political standpoint, the Redskins are pure gold. Win, lose or draw – the trademark ruling is immaterial. The diversion is the thing.
Mr. Obama has also made points with his liberal base just by pressing the case on racial grounds. Liberals love this kind of thing – so long as it doesn’t touch them. Making the Redskins change their name would be a “scalp” on the belt of professional racist-hunters, energizing them to pick other targets. Liberals also hate rich people (excepting their own rich guys, who finance their political campaigns). A government action that could damage a valuable business and its rich owners might just energize Dems’ liberal base enough to turn them out for the crucial 2014 elections and stave off a Republican takeover of the Senate.
“Aggrieved” Indian war-parties might also be hoping for a monetary settlement as part of a deal to let the ‘Skins keep the name. It would not be surprising to see this kind of agreement emerge in due time. Call it a “negotiated peace.” Back in the day, Indians often said, “Paleface speak with forked tongue…” when whites broke the treaties they had made. On this modern treaty, however, the tables might be turned. We’ll see if the red men keep the treaty they make with their namesake team. On this one, the (NFL) Redskins have fourth and long, but I like their chances. (Go ‘Skins!)
Lawyers – many of which are liberal-leaning supporters of Democrats – must also be pleased to see another issue arise which will require endless litigation and high fees. Money will flow like the veritable Father of Waters, as the trademark case is re-tried in the courts and in the media. Who says Mr. Obama doesn’t create jobs? Kowabonga!