Is “Redskins” Offensive?

Controversy over the nickname of the NFL’s Washington Redskins has been swirling for nearly a year. Today, the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) announced that it had withdrawn governmental protection for exclusive use of that name, meaning ironically that anyone (an individual or business enterprise) henceforth can call itself the “Washington Redskins”.

The purpose of the federal government’s trademark and copyright laws is to prevent copiers willy-nilly from using the same name (or symbols for it) in ways that confuse the buyers of a good or service. What would the effects on commerce or on consumers’ welfare be if, for instance, anyone were free to use Nike’s “swoosh” – or Underarmor’s distinctive “H” – to identify athletic apparel? What if a “Gucci” handbag had, in fact, been counterfeited? Consumers easily could be misled into paying more for those fakes than justified by their actual quality, as determined after purchase.

It is for the same reason that existing law grants manufacturers exclusive rights to their registered trademarks forever (in perpetuity). Patents, by contrast, run for at most 20 years.

Until today, the only reason for not enforcing a registered trademark was that the product displaying it no longer was being manufactured or sold. And so, if  the company so chose, Tesla could call its vehicles “Model Ts” without fear of a trademark infringement lawsuit from Ford Motor Co.

Political correctness is now rampant. Rather than focusing on issues of real political moment, such as the clear and present danger of Islamist uprisings on the borderlands straddling Iraq and Syria or the looming disaster of healthcare “reform”, the USPTO has concluded that the nickname of our national capital’s professional football team is worthy of public attention and denial of its exclusive commercial use. Other agencies of the federal government have better things to do. (Washington’s NFL franchise can be called the “Redskins” while the USPTO’s 2–1 decision is under appeal.)

If “Redskins” no longer is acceptable, what about “Rebels”, the monikers of the universities of Mississippi and of Las Vegas, the University of Utah’s “Utes” or Florida State’s “Seminoles”? What about Alcorn State University’s “Braves”?  (Alcorn State is an HBCU – an historically black institution of higher learning and so the federal government must tread lightly.) The University of Mississippi substituted a by and large inoffensive black bear for “Colonel Reb” as its on-field mascot. (But why not “brown” rather than possibly race-baiting “black”?) Stanford University succumbed to political pressure to switch from calling its sports teams “the Indians” to “the Cardinal”.

Will it never end until no one possibly is offended?

William F. Shughart II is Research Fellow and Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute, the J. Fish Smith Professor in Public Choice at Utah State University, past President of the Southern Economic Association, and editor of the Independent book, Taxing Choice: The Predatory Politics of Fiscal Discrimination.
Full Biography
Beacon Posts by William Shughart | Full Biography and Publications
  • Catalyst