Government, Media, Fans Can Force Dan Snyder into Changing Washington Team Name

Ty Schalter@tyschalterNFL National Lead WriterOctober 2, 2014

FILE - This Aug. 7, 2014 file photo shows groundskeepers preparing the end zone for the NFL football preseason game between the Washington Redskins and the New England Patriots in Landover, Md. The debate over the Washington Redskins nickname has been around for decades, usually as a flash-in-the-pan topic that pops up occasionally and disappears after a day or so. This time is different. The campaign against the term many consider to be a racial slur has reached sustained, unprecedented momentum over the last 18 months and shows no signs of abating. A confluence of events _ and several missteps by team owner Dan Snyder _ has made the issue a topic du jour. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)
Alex Brandon/Associated Press

Someday, the NFL football team that plays in (or near) Washington, D.C., will change its name and mascot.

This is certain, inescapable, inevitable. Too many people and organizations on too many sides of the issue are demanding change. Too many others are joining the fight too quickly. If national sentiment hasn't yet reached critical mass, per a Sports Illustrated poll, it will.

A growing chorus of media is eschewing the word, including major national columnists, premier sports websites and even game commentators. Eventually, media members still using the name will be the exception rather than the rule.

Owner Dan Snyder famously told USA Today the name will "NEVER" change. However, his predecessor, George Preston Marshall, famously said his team would "start signing Negroes when the Harlem Globetrotters start signing whites."

Marshall was forced to eat his words when the federal government stepped in.

Soon, Snyder might face the same fate.

Susan Walsh/Associated Press

President Barack Obama said last fall that if he owned the team, per The Associated Press (via SI.com), he would "think about changing the name." This spring, 50 U.S. Senators signed a letter to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, per USA Today, urging him to support a name change.

Those were symbolic gestures—but Snyder's indifference to them has inspired lawmakers to take real action.

Tom Wheeler, chairman of the Federal Communication Commission, is weighing a petition to the agency to revoke the broadcasting license of WWXX-FM (owned by Snyder) for repeated use of the team name on the air. According to Brooks Boliek of Politico, Wheeler personally finds the word offensive and avoids using it.

Imagine the impact: Every television and radio network and station in America would be forced to treat the name the same way it treats late comedian George Carlin's seven dirty words (NSFW warning: dirty words, obviously).

Not just during game broadcasts, but pregame shows, halftime shows, postgame highlights and mid-week analysis—overnight, everyone in front of a camera or behind a microphone would have to pretend Washington's football team has no nickname or mascot at all.

The U.S. Patent Office has already canceled the team's trademarks. Should the ruling be held up on appeal, anyone will be able to make and sell merchandise using the team's official name and logo. That would quickly narrow (or evaporate) the team's revenue stream from licensed jerseys, hats, knickknacks and holiday sweaters.

Meanwhile, U.S. Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton cosponsored a bill that would eliminate the NFL's tax-exempt status. Per Rick Klein of ABC News, Norton said her intent was to take that away from Washington "unless, and until, they decide not to profit from a name that has now officially been declared a racial slur."

Imagine the league office suddenly having to pay taxes on an estimated $10 billion in revenue rather than each team being responsible for paying taxes on its individual profit and loss. Snyder values the tradition of his team's nickname—but when it comes to billions of other people's dollars, Snyder's values aren't worth much.

Individually, none of these legal efforts is likely to win the day.

To date, the FCC's list of words it categorizes as "indecent" doesn't include racial or cultural slurs.

"The FCC has consistently said that indecency and profanity refer to sexual and excretory matters, and nothing more," Georgetown Law School professor Andrew Jay Schwartzman told Politico. "... It's not going to happen."

The U.S. Patent Office already cancelled Washington's trademarks back in 1999, but the ruling was overturned on appeal due to the age of the plaintiffs. The current cancellation shouldn't be overturned on the same grounds, but it's often hard to predict when or how legal proceedings will shake out.

The team and league will surely fight this ruling until every avenue is exhausted—and as long as they're still fighting, nothing will change.

As stunning as it is that the league office of the NFL is organized as a nonprofit, when clearly it profits quite handsomely, forcing it to incorporate is a bit of a red herring. Nearly all of the revenue the NFL's office collects gets funneled back out to the NFL's 32 franchises; restructuring the league's finances would be closer to an annoyance than an apocalypse.

All of these legal forces converging on Snyder, though, should force him to see his position: smugly sitting atop a sandcastle while the tide inexorably rises.

He should have taken the hint a long time ago, but nothing we've seen so far has moved Snyder. Not widespread media disuse and denouncement, not statements of unity against the name from a coalition of many Native tribes and not even NFL referees refusing to work Washington games.

So what's next?

Alex Brandon/Associated Press

The Associated Press could change its official stylebook to avoid use of the name. The AP Stylebook isn't just for members of the Associated Press; many newspapers and websites either follow AP style or use it as the basis for their own in-house style guide. Were the AP to take this step, the Washington nickname would quickly vanish from a huge swath of major print and online publications.

The NFL raked in over $1 billion in sponsorship money in 2013, per Sponsorship.com. During the PR disaster that was the Ray Rice situation, major sponsors like Anheuser-Busch issued concerned statements, per Nancy Armour of USA Today. As Armour wrote, if sponsors are pulling money out of the pot, "the NFL had better be listening."

What if sponsors pulled out over the league's continued support of the name? Or, more subtly, what if advertisers hit the NFL's broadcast partners in the wallet by refusing to buy ad inventory during Washington games?

ESPN pays about $1.9 billion a year for the rights to Monday Night Football, per Richard Sandomir of The New York Times. That's only viable because it can rake in even more than that in advertising dollars. What if it was forced to sell ads at bargain-basement prices every time Washington—which has one of the league's biggest fanbases and plays in the league's marquee division—was scheduled?

LANDOVER, MD - SEPTEMBER 12:  Owner Dan Snyder of the Washington Redskins jogs off the field before NFL week one game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at FedEx Field on September 12, 2004 in Landover, Maryland. Redskins defeated the Buccaneers 16-10.  (Ph
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

One of the biggest misconceptions surrounding this mess is Snyder's so-called ownership of the team. It's not his to do whatever he wants with. It's not his to run into the ground.

For starters, a supermajority of NFL owners can kick him out, just like the NBA forced out former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling. Ultimately, the team belongs to the real owners, the ones whose money pays for all of this: the fans.

If NFL fans around the world stopped coming to Washington road games, watching Washington games on TV and buying Washington merchandise online, that would hit every other owner's pocketbook—and the other owners wouldn't stand long for that.

Of course, if Washington fans stopped coming to the games, stopped watching on TV and stopped buying merchandise, Snyder's business would collapse. He'd be forced to either cave or sell.

Maybe Washington fans will be the last group to turn on Snyder and demand a change. Maybe NFL fans will be the slowest to recognize that we've passed the tipping point between "if" a name change will happen and "when."

Sports Illustrated's Peter King, as the visionary behind SI.com subsite The MMQB, was one of the first (and highest-profile) writers to stop using the team name. He recently predicted the team would voluntarily change its name by 2016 and explained his reasoning to ESPN 980, quoted here by The Washington Post's Dan Steinberg:

I have no proof, I have no reason, I can just feel the momentum going. I can feel the tea leaves being read in a lot of portions of our society. Maybe it'll happen, maybe it won't. It just feels like pretty soon the NFL is probably going to realize that we can get rid of a pretty big headache if we start calling them the Washington Veterans, or the Washington Americans, or the Washington Warriors, I don't know what. Pick a name. It's just a gut feeling. No proof. don't have a little birdie on Park Avenue in New York whispering in my ear, "Hey, we're going to get that name out of there." Nothing. It's just a sense I have, reading the tea leaves.

King's disclaimers aside, he's the most well-connected NFL journalist working today. Getting from staunch, adamant, go-down-with-the-ship opposition by Snyder to complete capitulation in two years requires a lot more than "tea leaves"; if Snyder had any sense of how the tide was rising against him, he'd have given up at least a year ago.

That said, if the federal government, media organizations and NFL fans continue to ratchet up the pressure, Snyder's support among the league will eventually implode. At that point, it won't matter whether he agrees to change or is forced to sell; the Washington NFL franchise will get a new name and mascot.

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