When the U.S. patent office canceled the trademark for the Redskins after concluding the team's nickname disparaged Native Americans, the ruling immediately put pressure on NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to assert his power — a burden NBA Commissioner Adam Silver made heavier.
Silver, sports' newest commissioner, wasted no time establishing himself as its boldest, too, banning former Clippers owner Donald Sterling for life last month after he was recorded making offensive comments about African-Americans. Now, those of us who believe the time has come for Washington's NFL team to change nicknames wonder whether Goodell can do for his league what Silver did for the NBA: make a strong stand in the name of what is right.
The Patent and Trademark Office gave Goodell an ideal opening to intervene with a decision that used language all 32 NFL owners understand: dollar signs. If the ruling stands up to the appeal, which will tie up the issue in court for years, neither Daniel Snyder's team nor the NFL can prevent other companies from making money off everything from RGIII jerseys to Redskins smartphone apps. For an organization ranked 10th in merchandise sales, according to the most recent league data, those millions are not insignificant.
Though tone-deaf, Snyder understands business. Surely Goodell can make him see the potential loss of revenue over time without even having to engage in the hot-button, decades-old debate over how offensive Redskins remains to enough Native Americans to matter. If Goodell can't get through to Snyder alone, don't underestimate the persuasive powers of 31 other owners pressuring him to acquiesce.
One of Snyder's peers might ask about the wisdom of letting stubbornness — Snyder was quoted saying the Redskins will relent on the nickname issue "over my dead body" — interfere with the potential for increased profits. Imagine the merchandising revenue created by the launch of a new logo and mascot. Whatever the method, Goodell and the owners have a responsibility to rid America's most popular league of racism in any form.
Those waiting for the federal district court to overturn the trademark panel on appeal like it did in 2003 must remember two things: A technicality caused by a late filing contributed to that decision, and the tenor of our national conversation has changed since then.
Like it or not, society evolves over a decade. Look no further than the NFL; the same commissioner who has yet to cast judgment on Washington's racist nickname initiated the discussion on penalizing players for saying the N-word during games. Of all the courts involved in deciding the future of Redskins, the court of public opinion possibly holds the most sway.
Sure, it would have been better if Goodell and Snyder had worked out a resolution before the government possibly infringed on Snyder's First Amendment rights — the only troubling aspect of the latest development. A sports commissioner such as Silver or Goodell overstepping his bounds falls lower on the concern scale than a government agency doing so. But as Goodell sat on the fence concerning "Redskins," the Patent and Trademark Office opened the door for a remedy the league should have forced itself.
Uncharacteristically, Goodell has been inconsistent on the Redskins debate for someone so comfortable using his position to influence social progress.
Remember in February when Goodell played no small role in Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer's decision to veto anti-gay legislation that, if passed, could have meant moving Super Bowl XLIX out of Phoenix? Remember how aggressive the league was addressing Richie Incognito's bullying and bigotry?
Why can't a commissioner so committed to cleaning up the locker-room culture hold those in the boardroom to the same standards of decency?
Yet we still are waiting for Goodell's definitive statement on the Redskins and Snyder, technically one of his bosses.
Instead, Goodell has given us the anti-Silver approach, free of sanctions or censure.
It was just a year ago that Goodell sounded surprisingly sympathetic to Snyder's plight, saying in support: "For the team's millions of fans, one of America's most ethnically and geographically diverse fan bases, the name is a unifying force that stands for strength, courage, pride and respect."
The Oneida Indian Nation, among restless others, respectfully disagrees.
As sentiments gradually shifted, so did Goodell's opinion. Three months after expressing support for the nickname's "unifying force," the commissioner struck a different chord in a September 2013 interview about the appropriateness of Redskins.
"We have to do everything necessary to make sure we're representing the franchise in a positive way … and that if we are offending one person, we need to be listening and making sure we're doing the right things to try to address that," Goodell said.
Somebody clearly had gotten through to Goodell's social conscience. As opportunity looms, the commissioner needs another long talk with whomever that was.