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“A Protection Racket”: The Corrupt Bargain Between Politicians And The NFL

For a number of years, I have been uneasy about the symbiotic and corrupt relationship between lawmakers and professional sports leagues, especially football. Many years ago, I got a call from a reporter with Sports Illustrated. I returned the call, mostly out of curiosity about why a sports reporter was calling a politics/Congress person. It turned out there was a legitimate reason. The SI reporter had noticed that Senator John Warner of Virginia served on the board of directors of the Washington Redskins; he wondered whether that was allowed under the ethics rules of the Senate—and if so, why?

Of course, as a general matter, members of Congress could not serve on corporate boards. But somehow, the sports team was viewed differently. It should not have been. The Redskins, then owned by Jack Kent Cooke, was a very large for-profit company, with clear and important interests in front of the federal government. Professional football had an antitrust exemption, worth a fortune and even then controversial. The Redskins, like the other National Football League teams, enjoyed very favorable depreciation rules for its players, tax advantages that meant less revenues for the government and more profits for the owners. Warner was a great senator, a man of integrity. But as a member of the board of the team, he had a fiduciary responsibility to look after its interests. And as a senator, he had a duty to look after the interests of Virginia and America. What if those duties clashed?

The Redskins, back then, were the only game in town, an obsession for Washington. Cooke’s owner’s box each weekend was filled with Washington power brokers, including senators, House leaders, the chairman of the Fed, cabinet officers, and others. Cooke reveled in their friendship; they reveled in their access.

The buddy-buddy relationship between the NFL and lawmakers led to the antitrust exemption in 1961. This is a multibillion-dollar business; why should it be given an exemption denied to other businesses and industries not doing professional sports? There was even less legitimacy to the decision Congress made subsequently to enable the NFL itself to function as a nonprofit organization, with all the benefits that accrue to other nonprofits. Nonprofit? Find me a nonprofit that pays its CEO $44 million! Of course, the NFL is not a nonprofit in reality, and it has spun a web of offshoots that pull in bundles of money for licensing and other lucrative businesses.

The unhealthy and unholy relationship the NFL has long maintained with Congress has also been evident with local and state governments that eagerly jump in to make taxpayers pay through the nose to attract or keep teams through separate tax breaks; public financing of stadiums; giveaways or bribes in the form of granting luxury boxes and their huge streams of revenue to the team owners instead of to the taxpayers footing the bill for the stadiums; and so on. If local politicians are not eager enough, team owners bludgeon them into submission with threats to move the teams. As Steve Almond wrote in The Washington Post, this is crony capitalism plain and simple—I would add, along with a dose of a protection racket.

Roger Goodell, the NFL commissioner, has his own links to Washington. His father, whom I knew and deeply admired, was a Republican senator from New York who was courageous in his deep opposition to American involvement in Vietnam, infuriating the Nixon administration—not the only position he took that broke from party orthodoxy. I became disillusioned with son Roger long before the current fiasco, when he quickly blew off the Obama administration’s request to have the NFL help uninsured football fans learn about their access to health insurance under the Affordable Care Act. This was not about endorsing or supporting a political side; it was about informing people about getting insurance. No doubt many younger NFL fans play football themselves—and some otherwise healthy athletes will get concussions, fractures, spinal injuries, and more while doing so; without insurance, they could have their lives devastated. Goodell’s move was a craven one.

Now he is under siege for his stumbles and missteps over domestic violence. He is also facing criticism for the league’s longtime indifference to the brain injuries suffered by so many players in the violent sport. But he is for the moment secure in his job; the owners are firmly behind him. And why not? His stewardship, built on that crony capitalism, makes these very wealthy people even wealthier, and they have been happy to reward him with staggering benefits.

I am a sports nut and an ardent football fan. Whether Goodell stays or goes is not really the issue here. To me, the issue is that it is past time for Congress to reexamine its unhealthy relationship to this huge set of businesses, to reconsider both the antitrust exemption and the farcical nonprofit status of the league. Football is sport, its fan base is huge, including members of Congress. But it is first and foremost a business, and it is simply wrong to ignore that reality in making public policy.

 

By: Norm Ornstein, The Atlantic, September 25, 2014

September 26, 2014 Posted by | Congress, Major League Sports, National Football League | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Snyder’s Insulting Redskins Logic”: Irrational Insistance That Native Americans Are Somehow Being Honored

Fear not for the future of free speech after the Washington Redskins’ trademark fight. The legal dividend could be more free speech, not less.

A lot of my fellow First Amendment advocates sound nervous about cancellation of the Washington pro football team’s trademark by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office this past week.

Even among those who sharply disagree with team owner Dan Snyder, who irrationally insists that Native Americans somehow are honored by a word that major English dictionaries call “insulting” and “usually offensive,” there is widespread concern that the patent office is deciding what trademarks are “disparaging” to Native Americans or anyone else.

The decision can’t force the NFL team to change its name, but it could hit Snyder in his wallet.

If the ruling stands up in court, he could lose the right to block other companies from selling caps, cups, jerseys and other merchandise with the name and Indian head logo.

Critics see that potential penalty as an infringement on Snyder’s First Amendment rights.

Yet, viewed another way, the decision can be seen as an expansion of everyone else’s right to do what the government’s trademark allowed only Snyder to do.

Sometimes government not only is allowed but obligated to decide what is not only legal but also proper. The states, for example, routinely ban certain words, numbers or names from vanity license plates that they view as obscene or insulting.

A Santa Fe man, for example, unhappily lost his New Mexico vanity license plate in 2012 after state officials declared its message, “IB6UB9,” to be unacceptably naughty.

But we have courts to temper such judgments. The New Hampshire Supreme Court in May overruled state workers who rejected a request for “COPSLIE,” according to news reports. State regulations allowed for vanity plates to be denied if they were deemed “offensive to good taste.” (This particular request, I would add, also violates good sense.)

All states bar plates that are “obscene, lewd, lascivious, derogatory to a particular ethnic group, or patently offensive,” according to Stefan Lonce, author of “LCNS2ROM: Vanity License Plates and the GR8 Stories They Tell.”

Similarly, the federal patent office is allowed to reject applications for trademarks that are disparaging to particular racial, ethnic or religious groups.

That’s why a federal appellate court in May upheld the patent office’s refusal of a trademark to the website titled “Stop! Islamization of America.” Although the owners contend the website only opposed “political Islamization” and not the Islamic faith, the court ruled, “The (patent office) board disagreed, as do we.”

Yet it is hard to see where the group’s free speech rights have been infringed. Their website and Facebook pages remain online. So do Web pages by civil rights and anti-hate organizations that oppose the group’s positions.

Snyder similarly remains free to use his team’s name, if the revocation sticks, but so can anyone else. He only loses certain government protections, such as preventing other users of the team name from selling or exporting team souvenirs and presumably cutting into his profits.

Of course, the Redskins’ name has seniority, as its defenders point out. The team has been using it since the 1930s. But words do change in their meanings and implications over time.

I am reminded of how tea party protesters used to display tea bags on signs and used “tea bagging” to describe their anti-tax protests in early 2009, until liberal commentators made a mockery of the verb.

As a sign of respect for the right of people to be called what they want to be called, I stopped using the term to refer to the movement after an avalanche of emails expressed outrage over the “obscene slur.”

Yet, I have been dismayed to hear some — although certainly not all — of the same people who were angrily offended by that T-word unable to understand why Native Americans are similarly offended by the R-word.

That’s why I am not very upset that the patent office decided to cancel the Washington football team’s trademark. I am only disappointed that the government had to be asked.

 

By: Clarence Page, Member, Editorial Board; The Chicago Tribune, June 22, 2014

June 23, 2014 Posted by | National Football League, Native Americans | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Target The Corporate Sponsors”: So Redskins Sponsor FedEx Is OK With That Racist Team Name, Too?

So Chainsaw Danny Snyder is digging in his heels again. This time, after the federal government determined this week that his football team’s name disparages Native Americans, he trotted out his trademark lawyer, Robert Raskopf, to yawn at the decision and assure racists and idiots everywhere that he’d seen this movie before and knew how it ended, which is the opposite of how most Redskins’ games end—in victory.

At least we were spared hearing anything from the execrable Lanny Davis, another of the execrable Snyder’s execrable henchmen. Lanny, a quick Google reveals, has had plenty on his plate lately anyway, the kinds of items one would expect of the ur-Fox Democrat: Writing for HuffPo that Jeb Bush would be a great candidate, whacking Obama on Fox News over the Bowe Bergdahl deal. Thank God it’s an election year. This is like choosing between water torture and nipple clothespins, but I’d much rather have to hear Davis lecture us about how he has regretfully come to conclude that the Democrats deserve to lose the Senate than listen to him bray about the grand tradition of the Washington football club’s name.

Snyder and Raskopf, alas, have a case—not an irrefutable case, but a case—on First Amendment grounds. But that question, remember, has never been tested. When a federal court in 2003 overruled the Patent and Trademark Office the last time that office declared the team’s name disparaging, it did not do so on free-speech grounds. It tossed the case mainly on the grounds that the plaintiffs had waited too long to file suit.

Presuming that the plaintiffs won’t make that mistake this time (and they apparently have not), we might someday soon have a court decide the question on the merits. That will be interesting. As I say, Snyder has an argument. Thursday morning on the radio, I heard Bruce Fein, the estimable conservative-but-heterodox constitutional scholar, say it was basically an open-and-shut First Amendment claim: Just as the American Nazi Party was allowed to march in Skokie, Illinois, in the 1970s (a heavily Jewish Chicago suburb full of Holocaust survivors), so Chainsaw Dan is entitled to call his team whatever he wants to call it.

First of all, Snyder, who is Jewish, ought to give some serious reflection to the notion that an expert defending his position had to reach deep enough into the constitutional barrel to haul out the American Nazi Party. But second, while I can’t claim to match Fein on constitutional bona fides, as the good citizens of Carrboro, North Carolina, would no doubt attest based on the night I debated him there, I would venture that his analogy is pretty inexact. The First Amendment is not absolute. There’s the clear and present danger exception. The fighting words exception. The libel and slander exception. The time, place, and manner exception. Read of them here. Obviously, a federal judge so inclined could very easily find that the offensive name constitutes fighting words or slander. In fact, I find it difficult to imagine that a federal judge who isn’t a knuckle-dragging hellspawn of the Federalist Society could find in 2014 (or 2015 or whenever the case is decided) that the name Redskins isnt slander.

But that’s for down the road. For now, what should happen? It seems to me, decent and like-minded citizens who are leading this fight, that your next target is FedEx. The delivery giant has, of course, paid the Snyder organization since the late 1990s to have its name plastered on the stadium. FedEx is paying the team $7.6 million a year through 2025. Only—and this is really odd, but true—Royal Phillips Electronics pays more per year for naming rights, shelling out $9.3 million per annum to the Atlanta Hawks for the naming rights to Phillips Arena. Most naming rights run in the $1 million to $3 million a year range.

FedEx is probably already locked in for this fall’s season. But suppose enough pressure could be placed on the corporation that by next fall, or the next, it is willing to say: We no longer wish to be associated with this team. The company will say that if it is made to feel that its association with the team is bad for business. Into the bargain, FedEx would save itself—and cost the Redskins—something on the order of $75 million over a decade. FedEx is public. It has stockholders. Like pension funds and universities. You follow?

Imagine the blow that would be: “FedEx Withdraws Name From Stadium Over Redskins’ Name.” Sure, some other whorish corporation would step in. Maybe Sambo’s restaurant! There still is one. Redskins’ Field at Sambo’s Stadium. In a perverse way, I’m almost for it.

 

By: Michael Tomasky, The Daily Beast, June 20, 2014

June 22, 2014 Posted by | National Football League, Racism | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Redskins’ Running Out Of Downs”: The Profit Principle Always Trumps Tradition

We interrupt your viewing of the sport the rest of the world calls football in order to take note of a potentially game-changing (or at least name-changing) development in the American version of the game. As many American football fans know by now, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has canceled the Washington professional football team’s trademark registration on the name “Redskins” (and also “Redskinettes”) on the grounds that “they were disparaging to Native Americans at the respective times they were registered.” You can’t legally register “marks that may disparage persons or bring them into contempt or disrepute,” according to the order.

It’s been clear for some time now that – despite the from-my-cold-dead-hands denunciations of team owner Dan Snyder – there is a realistic path forward for changing the name: not moral suasion as such but the power of the marketplace. Once Snyder, and if not him then his 31 other team-owning National Football League colleagues, start to see their collective bottom line erode, they will do the right thing.

As my colleague Pat Garofalo wrote a little more than a year ago: “The Redskins are the fifth most valuable sports franchise in the world, so cutting off the trademark spigot would likely be more effective, sadly, than the string of Native American leaders who have come forward to explain the derogatory history of the term with which Washington endows its team.” And as ProFootballTalk.com’s Michael David Smith writes:

Could Redskins owner Dan Snyder, who insists that he will never change the name, afford to lose that money? Yes. But even if Snyder is so devoted to the Redskins name that he’s willing to lose money over it, losing the ability to trademark the name wouldn’t just cost Snyder money. It would also cost the other teams, and the NFL’s merchandising partners, money. Snyder’s fellow owners aren’t going to stand for that.

Snyder and his colleagues are all people of principle, after all, and in this case I suspect that the “profit” principle will trump its “tradition” counterpart.

None of this should come as a surprise. As USA Today wrote last month (h/t Washington Post):

If the team were applying for federal trademark protection for its “Redskins” name today, it would almost certainly be denied: At least 12 times since 1992 the USPTO has refused to register such marks on disparagement grounds, including seven applications from the Washington team (for terms such as “Redskins Fanatics” and “Redskins Rooters”) and one from NFL Properties (for “Boston Redskins”).

I understand the desire to cling to tradition; and I even get the knee-jerk instinct to oppose things that smack of political correctness, but cultural grounds shift and sometimes in weighing political correctness we need to place more emphasis on the “correct” than on the “political.” Perhaps the name Redskins might have been acceptable in 1933 when then-owner George Preston Marshall changed the franchise’s name from the Braves to the Redskins. (Despite what Snyder says, Marshall didn’t select the name to honor its putatively Indian coach but rather, he said at the time, so that he could keep its logo whilst disambiguating his then Boston-based team from the baseball franchise of the same name.) There was probably also a time when someone could have gotten away with Washington Darkies or Washington Wetbacks, but neither of those names would fly today. Neither should Washington Redskins.

So what’s next? The Redskins have vowed to appeal and as many reports have noted, the team did get a near-identical ruling tossed out in 1999 on the grounds that the people who brought it didn’t have standing. Will they get the same result this time? As Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio notes, the “difference this time comes from the surrounding debate on the name. In 1999, the opposition was far less organized and mainstream. In 2014, the opposition has coalesced and assumed a sense that it will last until the name inevitably changes.”

In the meantime, those Redskin deadenders who deplore the idea of changing the team name can take comfort: Prices are about to drop on the team’s paraphernalia.

 

By: Robert Schlesinger, U. S. News and World Report, June 18, 2014

June 19, 2014 Posted by | Bigotry, National Football League, Racism | , , , , | 1 Comment

“A Derogatory History”: Economics May Finally Change The Terrible Name Of Washington’s Football Franchise

A group of lawmakers on Capitol Hill, as U.S. News’ Lauren Fox reports, is calling on Washington, D.C.’s National Football League franchise – unfortunately called the Redskins – to finally change its name. In a letter to owner Dan Snyder and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, the 10 lawmakers, including the co-chairs of the Congressional Native American Caucus, write, “Native Americans throughout the country consider the term ‘redskin’ a racial, derogatory slur akin to the ‘N-word’ among African-Americans or the ‘W-word’ among Latinos … Washington’s NFL football team profits from a term that is equally disparaging to Native Americans.”

Snyder has come under increased pressure to change the derogatory name of his franchise, including from the D.C. city leadership and Washington’s (nonvoting) member of the House of Representatives (who cosigned the letter). But, so far, he seems immune to such pressure.

So it was a point the 10 lawmakers made later in their letter that likely highlights the way towards enticing a recalcitrant and belligerent Snyder to come around. And it doesn’t have to do with anyone’s feelings; it has to do with economics.

As Fox notes, “Lawmakers have alerted the NFL that Congress introduced legislation that would amend the 1946 Trademark Act and cancel any trademark that used the term ‘redskin.'” That bill, H.R. 1278, would eliminate one of Snyder’s money-making avenues, removing the trademark protection that prevents other organizations from marketing Redskins gear.

As ThinkProgress’ Travis Waldron explains, “Losing the trademark wouldn’t force the Redskins to change the name. What it would do, however, is make it impossible to stop other people from using it.” The Redskins are the fifth most valuable sports franchise in the world, so cutting off the trademark spigot would likely be more effective, sadly, than the string of Native American leaders who have come forward to explain the derogatory history of the term with which Washington endows its team.

Pro sports (as I’ve noted here before) is a big business and there are myriad ways in which the government is implicitly or explicitly backing the profits of franchises and their owners. And teams, as every fight over public subsidies for a new stadium shows, will go to great lengths to protect that backing. Washington’s team is already facing one lawsuit looking to strip away the trademark; an affirmative act of Congress to finish the trademark off would leave Snyder with quite the conundrum.

For precedent, it’s worth revisiting what led Washington’s football franchise to integrate. Then-owner George Preston Marshall was perfectly content to play up the team’s racist history, leaving it the last segregated squad in the league. He finally relented in 1962, not because of any change of heart, but after the John F. Kennedy administration threatened to refuse the team access to what is now called RFK Stadium, which was on federal land, unless it integrated. (Thomas G. Smith’s “Showdown: JFK and the Integration of the Washington Redskins” is a good primer on the tale.)

So these 10 members of Congress hit on perhaps the best approach for getting Snyder to change his mind: not going after his sense of decency, but his bottom line.

 

By: Pat Garofalo, U. S. News and World Report, May 29, 2013

May 30, 2013 Posted by | Sports | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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