If nearly two decades of covering sports and living in the nation's capital have taught me anything, it's that when someone tells you it's not about the money, it's probably about the money. And when that same someone won't even acknowledge said money, it's definitely about the money.
Case in point? Last week, a group of Native American petitioners and representatives of the Washington Redskins appeared before the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board in Alexandria, Virginia, to debate the appropriateness of the team's 80-year-old nickname. The petitioners argued that the word redskins is a racial slur -- like chink or wetback or raghead or the n-word -- and therefore shouldn't be entitled to federal trademark protection; playing defense, the team's lawyers countered that the moniker is wholly well-intentioned, an inoffensive honorific of sorts, rooted in pride and tradition. (Note: all-American football tradition, not all-American ethnic cleansing tradition).
Following the hearing, Redskins general manager Bruce Allen met with a group of reporters, including Mike Wise of the Washington Post. Allen talked about great football games and great football players. About enthusiastic fans. About the team's charitable work. About -- no, really -- surging television ratings.
At one point, Allen was asked an obvious question: isn't this case really about money?
"You would have to ask the, uh, I think they're called the plaintiffs in this case what their motives are," Allen reportedly said.
Wise has met with Native Americans on reservations in Montana and South Dakota. He repeatedly has argued in favor of changing the team's nickname. He was dumbfounded.
"That was a nice little political pivot, like his brother George [Allen, a former United States Senator from Virginia]," he says. "He turned the question around and made it seem as if the American Indians were asking for money. That's startling. I looked at all the patent cases on the docket that day. They're full of people who feel ripped off. People who want money. But these people just want the team to stop using the [Redskins] name. They are not asking for reparations."
Freud had a psychological term for Allen's neat bit of verbal aikido: projection. Granted, Allen has a deep emotional attachment to the Redskins' nickname and logo, the be-feathered bust of a rust-red Native American man that wouldn't be out of place on the lid of a Civil War-era tobacco tin. Allen's father, George, coached the team in the 1970s. According to a story former Washington defensive end Deacon Jones told Wise, a teenaged Allen once cold-cocked a guy on a rival team's sideline for badmouthing the franchise. Likewise, Washington owner Daniel Snyder is in thrall to the team's history and iconography. After all, he's a local boy made good, a kid who famously grew up wearing a Redskins belt buckle. It's likely the case that both men are obliviously sincere when they say that don't mean to offend anyone by retaining the team's current nickname; it's definitely the case that both men are blithely untroubled by the status quo, never mind that the moniker is inarguably offensive to many Native Americans, in the way that a team nicknamed the "Sambos" and sporting a blackface caricature on the side of its helmet would be offensive to many African-Americans … or a team with a picture of Daniel Snyder decked out with a goatee and devil horns on its uniforms would be offensive to, well, Daniel Snyder.
Still, for Allen to brush off a legitimate question by implying that a couple of greedy Native Americans are making some kind of sneaky statutory cash grab is ludicrous. For Snyder to tell CNN's
Emperor Palpatine Robert Novak in 2003 that he'll never change the team's nickname because Redskins is a non-derogatory nod to "war paint" is both disingenuous and misinformed. (For the record: former team owner and moniker originator George Preston Marshall was a rotten, incorrigible racist; as Washington Post writer Sally Jenkins puts it, the term Redskins "dates to the settler era when hunters boasted about shooting down 'damned government pets; and peddled Indian scalps as if they were animal pelts along with deerskins and bearskins"; honoring a group of people all but wiped from the face of the continent via systemic deception, persecution and slaughter by making them your sports mascot is an odd conception of honoring. Let's move on). Other teams that once embraced demeaning Native American nicknames had pride and tradition, too; nevertheless, they've changed. Washington hasn't. And the team's intransigence -- its sheer, stubborn refusal to do the right thing -- is about money, because the entire trademark case, an ongoing legal battle now in its third decade, is about money.
Specifically, protecting Snyder's money.
Lawyers for the Native American plaintiffs in the case are working pro bono. Lawyers for the Redskins are not. If the plaintiffs win the case, they won't pocket a dime. If the Redskins lose the case, they'll lose the exclusive rights to their logo and moniker, which in turn means losing the exclusive ability to cash in with branded ballcaps, beer cozies, keychains and lottery tickets. Harjo and other Native Americans have tried personally urging former team owner Edward Bennett Williams to change the nickname. They've tried peaceful protests. They've tried appeals to shame, embarrassment and basic human decency. No dice. So they're going after the one thing that moves the needle, at least with Snyder, a man who once charged fans to attend training camp. During a previous trademark case, lawyer Robert Raskopf said that if the team no longer had the sole marketing rights to the Redskins name, it would suffer "every imaginable loss you can think of." He was not talking about a low-budget North Korean propaganda video fever dream. He was talking about cold, hard cash.
In other words: the Washington Redskins are perfectly happy to keep on kicking symbolic sand in the face of an ethnic group that has been hunted and herded into social, cultural and geographic exile, so long as there's a few extra bucks to be made on the back end.
Of course, that's the rub. The truly infuriating part. The insult added to, well, insult. Adopting a new, non-reprehensible nickname would cost the Redskins something. It would be a procedural, legal loop-jumping headache, a complicated process experts estimate could take two years. But it wouldn't break the bank. Definitely not by Washington standards. A new moniker wouldn't come close to the price tag of a single F-22 Raptor (an estimated $377 million per stealth fighter jet designed to dominate a Cold War battlefield that no longer exists); it wouldn't come close to the cost of a single Albert Haynesworth ($35.6 million for a defensive tackle designed to perform in-game turf inspections that don't exist).
The exact price of a nickname change is hard to estimate -- in part because the teams and schools that have switched monikers typically haven't shared their costs publicly; in part because unaffiliated sports branding and marketing experts don't have access to the proprietary team financial data needed to calculate a number. That said, it's possible to make a reasonable, educated guess. In 2010, Charlotte Bobcats owner Michael Jordan told Charlotte Observer writer Scott Fowler that it would cost him between $3 million and $10 million to change the team's little-loved nickname. (NBA insiders say Jordan's estimate is accurate). A source with knowledge of financial operations in professional football estimates that the cost for a "significant NFL team" might be as high as "$10 million to $20 million." Where does the money go? Think naming consultants. (Someone has to come up with replacement monikers, like "Warriors" and "Pigskins.") Think lawyers. (Someone has to vet those same names, a tedious affair; according to New York-based brand expert Allen Adamson, "for every 10 names you think of, nine are going to be unavailable.") Think having to revamp every single thing -- from stadium signs to uniform patches to front office stationary to the pixels in "Madden NFL" -- featuring a team logo or nickname.
"There's so many points of touch that need to be changed," Adamson says. "People think it's only the name on the top of the stadium. But walk in. It's probably everywhere. In neon. Etched in stone. And you have to rip off the old name and put in a new name. That's a fixed cost, and it's not insubstantial."
Some have speculated that a revised name and logo could boost merchandise sales for Snyder's team -- first by transforming remaining old-school Redskins items into fly-off-the-shelves collectibles; next by introducing shiny new gear for fans to buy. That's entirely possible. Yet as a person familiar with the team's operations pointed out to the Washington Post, 31 NFL teams pool and equally split merchandising revenue, which means a new-look Washington wouldn't disproportionately benefit from an uptick. (Predictably, the Dallas Cowboys are the lone holdouts from the profit-sharing plan; according to a 2006 article in the Fordham Intellectual Property Media and Entertainment Law Journal, the Redskins made about $5 million from NFL Properties in 1999, a number that likely has grown).
"People are going to buy new sweatshirts," Adamson says. "But I think when you factor in the cost of changing a name, it's probably a wash."
The Redskins are a significant NFL franchise. Last year, Forbes estimated that the team was worth $1.6 billion -- the third-highest valuation in the league -- and that the club turned a $109 million profit in 2011. As such, suppose a name change would actually cost Snyder as much as $20 million. That's nearly a fifth of an entire year's profits. Pretty substantial. On the other hand, the Redskins have made a number of pretty substantial investments over the last 15 years, including:
- Adam Archuleta, $10.6 million;
- Steve Spurrier, $10 million;
- Deion Sanders, $5 million-plus;
- Jeff George, about $2.5 million;
- Jim Zorn, $2.4 million to not coach.
The upshot? The Redskins can afford the one-time sunk costs of a nickname change, because: (a) Snyder isn't exactly afraid to spend; (b) owning the club is the next best thing to having Wall Street access to the Federal Reserve's "discount window." Moreover, it's highly probable that the franchise could withstand a possible, accompanying dip in brand equity -- that is, the difficult-to-quantify financial value that comes with having an established identity. On name alone, the Washington Redskins are more valuable than, say, the Jacksonville Jaguars: sports economist Daniel Rascher once calculated that over a multi-year span, the team ranked five spots higher in licensed merchandise sales rankings than non-brand factors would otherwise predict. If Snyder changed the team's name and subsequently sold the franchise -- an unlikely hypothetical given his emotional investment --would the switch knock $5 million off the sale price? $10 million? $100 million? A sports marketing expert with deep NFL ties says "the damage to the brand would be incredible." By contrast, Adamson argues that it would be significant in the short term, but also manageable, akin to Anderson Consulting changing its name to Accenture -- a once-derided corporate switch that now is largely forgotten.
"Some of this is splitting hairs," says Jason Maloni, chair of the sports and entertainment practice of the Washington, D.C.-based public relations firm LEVICK. "When the Washington Bullets changed their name to Wizards, that perhaps did not enhance their brand. But maybe that's because they didn't enjoy success on the court. The greatest way to enhance a brand is to win. That, more than the colors or the name, is going to dictate what fans feel about your brand. You could argue that the Redskins could weather a name change easily if they win the next few Super Bowls."
Back to Allen. After last week's trademark hearing, he told reporters that the Redskins' history was "something to be proud of. Five world championships. Some of the greatest games, some of the greatest characters who have ever played in the NFL were Washington Redskins. I don't think you can just turn your back on that, and we don't plan on doing that." Only a name change is not an eraser. Persia is now called Iran; King Xerxes remains a historical legend. Contrary to Allen's assertion, dumping "Redskins" would not toss Joe Gibbs, John Riggins and the Over the Hill Gang into a memory hole. (Nor would it blot out Heath Shuler, John Beck and Dana Stubblefield. Alas). Robert Griffin III will still line up in the pistol formation. FedEx Field will still host tailgating. The cheerleaders will still produce swimsuit calendars. For the people who care about the Redskins because they care about the experience of professional football -- a.k.a. the customers -- a name change would be just that. Life would go on. The sport would go on.
"One of the lawyers [for the Native American plaintiffs] put it to me perfectly," Wise says. "The Redskins are trying to say they're not offending anybody. It's just the name of the team. It's just about the 11 guys on the field. Well, if it's just about the 11 guys on the field, then who cares what you call them?"
Don't take the lawyer's word for it. Nor Wise's. Nor even mine. Instead, ask Brad Andrews, senior vice president for academic resources at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisconsin. For decades, the Division III school used the nickname Redmen. Its logo was a nod to Native Americans -- two feathers adorning a circle, surrounding a "C." Alumni were content. So were students, fans and athletic boosters. No one filed a trademark lawsuit. No one even complained.
In 2005, however, the NCAA adopted a policy prohibiting the use of Native American nicknames, mascots, logos and other imagery at postseason events. Carthage officials decided to act. They changed the school's nickname to Red Men. Changed its logo to a "C" on a shield. Changed its mascot to "Torchy," a muscular male character with fiery red hair. They changed uniforms, scoreboards, murals, letterhead and the school's website; over a six-month span, they spent about $100,000. The whole time, they fretted that donors and alumni would reject the new name and look. Carthage is a small school. It does not turn a $100 million-plus yearly profit. As Andrews says, it can't afford to lose any "support, loyalty or love."
"There were expenses involved, headaches, feelings to manage," he says. "People were fond of the old logo, and it was perceived by some as more of a political issue than a problem where somebody was coming to use and saying, 'look, this is offensive.' Some of our alumni and fans of our sports teams did feel sad."
And today? According to Andrews, the school enjoys the same level of fan and alumni support. No drop-off in donations. No sag in game attendance. No mass exodus from team booster clubs.
In fact, Andrews says, there's only one noticeable difference.
"People still have the old spirit wear, but with our t-shirts and sweatshirts, I rarely see it on campus," he says. "It was a process. Was there a sense of loss? Yes. But [the change] made sense. In the end, we wanted to do the right thing."