Obama, Asian Americans Bring Controversy over Washington Football Team to its Peak

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Over the weekend, President Obama weighed in on the Washington Redskins name controversy, just  before the Oneida Indian Nation was to convene its “Change the Mascot” symposium in Washington to coincide with the NFL’s fall meeting.

For years, Native American groups have urged the Washington football team, and others who use some form of an Indian term for their mascot, to take the high road and, in the name of respect, dump the offensive names. But Daniel Snyder, the owner of the Redskins team, has responded infamously with a bold and unequivocal, “Never.”

Intransigent positions are common these days in Washington, but that didn’t stop President Obama from adding his two cents this past weekend.

“If I were the owner of the team and I knew that there was a name of my team — even if it had a storied history — that was offending a sizable group of people, I’d think about changing it,” Obama said in an interview published by the Associated Press on Saturday.

He could have simply passed on the question as too controversial. That has always been the Obama way when it comes to most race issues. It’s much easier for the first African-American president to stay above it all.

But he didn’t on this one. And just one utterance was no small thing, as Native American advocates took note. In a statement released over the weekend, the tribe saw the president’s words as a momentum booster.

“As the first sitting president to speak out against the Washington team name, President Obama’s comments are truly historic,” said Oneida Indian Nation Representative Ray Halbritter.  “The use of such an offensive term has negative consequences for the Native American community when it comes to issues of self-identity and imagery. We will continue to push our cause because this is about doing right by our children, who are especially impressionable.” The Oneida Nation has mounted an all-out ad campaign to get a name change (http://www.changethemascot.org).

It’s unclear whether the president’s words will sway Snyder.

But on top of the president’s statement, another impending action may do more to force Snyder’s hand.

Any day now, the U.S. Trademark Appeals Court is set to rule on a case that could strip away trademark protection for the football team’s name. A hint of how the court might rule was actually revealed a day before the president’s comment. On Friday, the court rejected efforts by the Asian American rock and roll band The Slants to trademark its name because the term “slants” was seen as disparaging (listen to my interview with the founder of The Slants at http://www.amok.com). The group actually wanted to own the term to “re-appropriate the slur.” But they were denied. That’s how strong the “disparagement” standard is in trademark law, and why it may be the biggest threat to Snyder and his team name.

Without trademark protection, Snyder could lose millions of dollars in all the ancillary profits that come from putting the offensive name and image on everything from T-shirts to key-chains. What red-blooded businessman would stand for that?

A court decision could come any day now.

If it forces a change, the timing of it all would make the Asian American rock band and the president a unique 1-2 punch in the name of diversity.

Emil Guillermo writes on issues of race for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (www.aaldef.org/blog). Like him at www.facebook.com/emilguillermo.media  or follow him on Twitter @emilamok.

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