What’s In a Name? The Controversy over the Washington Redskins – Guest Essayist: Tony Williams

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In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the progressives created numerous agencies in the executive branch of government that were supposed to bring more rationality, efficiency, and order to American society.  They were to be run by scientific experts who would oversee a civil service bureaucracy that would govern objectivity as they made decisions free of politics and partisanship.

Over the course of the twentieth century, the administrative state grew rapidly and regulated nearly all aspects of American life.  While politics was never far from the surface and coincided with the party that controlled the White House, the executive agencies of most administrations preserved a broad measure of objectivity.

The attempt by the current administration to force a change in the name of the Washington Redskins demonstrates that the executive bureaucracy is presently pursuing an ideological and partisan agenda in a blatant example of executive overreach.  Why are so many agencies involved in a dispute over the name of a professional football team that has been around for decades?  The overreach in this case is driven by a modern progressive ideology that seeks to impose its vision for an America where no one is offended.  This is accomplished through executive agencies rather than popular politics or voluntary action.

Over the last couple of years, the administration has waged a full-court press against the Washington Redskins because the name is perceived as racist or offensive.  The controversy started in the unlikeliest of places – the U.S Patent and Trademarks Office.  The Patent Office might seem to be the most scientific and unpolitical part of the executive branch where bureaucrats examine the inventions of tinkerers and scientists.  Nevertheless, it entered the fray over the name and cancelled the team’s trademark in June of 2014.  Although it was more of a symbolic act that did not affect hundreds of millions of dollars in merchandizing, it was a remarkable decision that set off popular ire on social media.

At the same time, the Federal Communications Commission considered banning the team name from any broadcasts and threatened to block renewal of federal licenses to any stations that continued to use the name.  FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler thought the name was so offensive and inappropriate that he could not bring himself to utter it, calling the team “the Washington football club.”  Some football announcers followed this example on broadcasts that were met with popular ridicule.  The FCC wanted to ban the name because it was “indecent” and considered several petitions to ban the name because it was “obscene.”  But it later ruled against the obscenity accusation because it had to admit that the name did not meet the official definition.

Not to be outdone, the National Park Service, under the Department of the Interior, which owns the land under RFK Stadium where the Redskins formerly played, joined the other agencies in the crusade when it refused to grant the District of Columbia a new lease for the Redskins possibly to return from FedEx Stadium in Maryland.  Interior Secretary Sally Jewel interjected her personal views that the name was “a relic of the past” and that she was “uncomfortable with the name.”  A new stadium will not be approved by the current administration for its duration unless the name is changed, but the next possible renewal will occur long after the administration leaves office.

Even President Barack Obama has commented on the controversy.  Without any direct authority over the name, he asserted back in 2013, that if he were one of the owners, he would “think about changing” what he argues is an offensive name.  Clearly, his administration is working hard to achieve that goal.

Just yesterday, a federal district court upheld the U.S. Patent Office withdrawal of the trademark.  The Washington Redskins plan to appeal the decision.  The decision reinforces NCAA pressure to change college team names with Native Americans on them in favor of a variety of animals and mythological figures.  For example, the College of William and Mary near my home changed their name from the Tribe to the Griffins.

The question remains why so many federal executive agencies are leading the organized campaign to remove a mascot from an NFL team.

Tony Williams is the author of five books including Washington and Hamilton: The Alliance that Forged America

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