The Washington R-Words and The First Amendment

Erstwhile editor and long-suffering fan of the Washington NFL franchise, Beau Driver, discusses new developments in the ongoing controversy over the team’s nickname.

In late January of 1988, I sat down to watch the football team I loved play in Super Bowl XXII. This was the heyday of the Washington Redskins. Coach Joe Gibbs had led them to prominence in the league and it seemed at the time that a dynasty was in the making. Yet, after the first quarter of play, things looked bleak. My team had fallen behind the Broncos, 10-0, and it appeared that a young John Elway was destined to bring the Vince Lombardi Trophy to Denver and to break my eight-year-old heart.

Nearly thirty years later, the Washington team has fallen in prestige and the promise that once was has been marred by scandal and a string of losing seasons. The most notable of the scandals—at least to those who don’t follow the soap opera that is the NFL—has been the ongoing controversy over the team’s name. In June of 2014, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office cancelled the registration of several of Washington’s trademark registrations because the logos were found to be “disparaging” of Native Americans. Over the last couple of years, senators, celebrities, athletes, and even the POTUS have officially called for the team to change its name and The Daily Show was embroiled in a mini-scandal over a segment that they produced. In response to this, the owner of the team, Dan Snyder, has continued to make attempts to justify the name by citing polling data, with his philanthropic endeavors, and with his own lawsuits in response to the Patent Office’s ruling.

Last week, Snyder filed a suit that might actually lead to a favorable result for the team. Citing the First Amendment, Snyder has claimed that the ruling of the Patent Office violates his right to free speech. And here’s the kicker: the ACLU agrees. In a post on the ACLU website, titled “You’re not Wrong, You’re Just an A**hole” the group reminds us that even though the First Amendment is invoked constantly, and in all manner of dispute, this is one in which the application of the First may be entirely proper. It is often forgotten that the amendment is meant to protect us from censorship from the government. So, if a baker in Oregon says that there is a violation of her rights because people boycott her for refusing to make wedding cakes for same-sex couples, it does not apply. People can shop where they want. The fact that they do not come to her actually shows people using their most basic of democratic abilities and voting with their feet/dollar. However, in the case of Snyder and the Washington football team, their claim that the Patent Office, a government entity, is encroaching on their right to free speech seems to be merited.

As a fan of the team, I’m disappointed. I have watched the legal proceedings around the name of the team, continually hoping that the mounting controversy would end with a rebranding and a new name. However, Dan Snyder continues to try and fight against the (at least in my opinion) inevitable. Yet, with recent polls suggesting that only 18% of Americans feel the name should change and with the promise of a new legal decision in favor of those who want to keep the name, a new round of tactics may be required.

Back in 1988, the second quarter of Super Bowl XXII brought a barrage of scoring as the Washington quarterback, Doug Williams, threw four touchdowns. The Broncos didn’t score again and Washington sailed into history, as Williams became the first African-American QB to start and win a Super Bowl. For a team that was the last in the NFL to integrate and one that had been owned by a notorious racist, this victory seemed to mark the beginning of a new age. Sadly, the continued use of the racist moniker creates the appearance that Washington has not left its racial issues in the past. Regardless of whether or not this is true, I believe that the only way to create a change in the nation’s capitol is for the fans who support a name change to make their voices heard. Ironically, I moved from the DC area and have resided in Colorado for the last twenty-five years, so now I find myself rooting for the Denver Broncos while I wait for change to come to Washington.

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One thought on “The Washington R-Words and The First Amendment

  1. Pingback: Indigenous History with Erstwhile | Erstwhile: A History Blog

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