NBA, NFL and the Business of Racism

The NBA has revenues of more than $5 billion. Its 30 teams have a collective valuation, per Forbes, of $19 billion – though given recent sales of other sports franchises, that’s probably understated. And so when one owner got caught making racially disparaging remarks, 29 others moved swiftly to excise the canker from the league’s cajillion dollar body. While final, legal closure will likely require years in court (the kind without hoops), it is, as far as fans and players are concerned, largely settled. The league rose to the occasion and cast out a resident racist, allowing the rest to move on.

The case of Donald Sterling is interesting and heartening because it will very likely be put to rest by operation of market forces, with a racist owner dispatched from the NBA because racism is bad for business. When racism is made to go away by private actors, without recourse to the coercive power of the state, that’s a good thing, and a sign of progress.

In contrast, the case of Washington’s NFL franchise is not likely to go away any time soon. Washington has been using a racial slur as its team name since 1933. As far back as 1968, the National Congress of American Indians condemned the team’s use of Redskins; scores of other Native American tribes and organizations have subsequently followed suit – just in case the point had been missed by Washington’s ownership, which was infamous for being among the most racist in professional sports. (In 1962, threatened with eviction from their home stadium by the federal government, they became the last pro football team to integrate – while playing in a city that was more than 50% black.)

Last week, the US Patent and Trademark Office revoked Washington’s team trademarks, deeming the Redskins name and image to be racially disparaging, and thus not entitled to trademark protection. This is the second time that the USPTO has issued such a decision. They did so first in 1999 – a decision that was later reversed.

There can be no serious debate as to whether “Redskins” is a racial slur, Dictionaries are unanimous. Decades of usage may have had a desensitizing effect – but try to Imagine yourself addressing a roomful of Native Americans as Redskins, and any remaining doubt will vanish. A harder question is the proper role of the state in adjudicating, if not remedying, the situation.

Consider that between Sterling’s comments and Washington’s name, the latter case is far more egregious, persisting now for more than 80 years, validated day in and day out by the league, its players and fans; in the mouths of sponsors, announcers and members of the press. The reason the matter persists is simply that Native Americans are not economically significant enough for NFL ownership, its players or fanbase to rethink current practice. Most people dont care – and Native Americans lack the political or economic capital to force them to reconsider.

While Sterling’s comments merited a severe rebuke, the size and swiftness of the response was driven not by the size of the insult, but by the amount of money at stake. Or, as stated above, it was not resolved by justice but by commerce. In Washington’s case, commerce may not be enough to make its ill-conceived team name go away – and justice may not have an answer either.

While trademark revocation is appropriate, it will have some undesirable effects if it stands. Clearly, it will hit the team in the wallet, which was petitioners’ objective. But Washington, with an estimated worth of $1.7 billion, may find the name valuable enough to keep, even in the absence of trademark protection. More perversely, anyone will be able to manufacture and sell merchandise with the Redskins name and logo, without having to get permission or pay licensing fees. According to basic economic theory, this will lead to a significant INCREASE in the supply of Redskins-branded items, and a drop in price. In other words, with its trademark protection revoked, use of the Redskins name and logo on commercial merchandise should become MORE widespread than ever.

Beyond revoking the trademark, it’s not clear what the government can or should do. Liberals must tread carefully in areas involving freedom of expression, including so-called hate speech – of which this matter is a sub-species. The Field Guide will take the issue up when we return on Friday.







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