Commentary / World

What’s in a name? NFL team’s decision should make us ask

by Stephen L. Carter

Bloomberg

By the time you read this, the professional football team located in the U.S. capital might have selected a new moniker. The controversy has been around for decades, and the Washington team recently yielded to critics who found the old name racist. Whichever side you’re on in that controversy, it’s useful to think about what the debate teaches us about the process of naming.

Many scholars argue that the process by which a name is selected tells us more than does the name itself. Through studying the process, we often can discover the relations of power. The choice of what to call a country, for example, is hardly ever democratic. It’s been argued that as a result of Western influence, the practical significance of the names of places across Hawaii has changed, even as the names themselves have remained the same.

Still, the power can be illusory. Consider the naming of children. Although parental discretion is nearly absolute — some call it a constitutional right — the choices actually made suggest that parents mainly copy the names of other babies. The exercise of "free” parental choice turns out to be tightly cabined by social trend.

Naming power can be illusory in another way. Even the largest private entity can run into insurmountable barriers to its naming efforts. For example, when Standard Oil dominated the sale of gasoline in the United States, court rulings prevented the company from consolidating its brands nationwide under the single trademark ESSO. The frustrations of that 35-year project led to the adoption in 1972 of the new mark EXXON. Although shareholders objected that the name sounded like a detergent or medicine, the company went forward. The cost of the change? Estimates in 1972 ran to $100 million, something over $600 million today. And that was just for changing signs and credit cards and labels.

In business, the power to choose a name is obviously limited by such concerns as trademark infringement. Consider, for instance, the battle between the former Lady Antebellum, which now wants to perform under the name Lady A, and Anita White, who was performing as Lady A already. It matters greatly who gets to use the name. What’s striking is that the rules apply even when the name you seek to use is your own, as a certain Ed Sullivan learned back in the 1950s when he put his name on his television repair shop. Sued by "the” Ed Sullivan, the defendant pled the right to use his own name — and lost.

This approach, to be sure, only applies when your name already has pecuniary value for someone else. But as scholars have long pointed out, legal regulation of surname use has been gradual, largely because the very concept of a surname has only been around for a few hundred years.

In their relatively short history, however, surnames have often led to large controversies. Consider human enslavement in the Americas. In the Spanish colonies and the Caribbean, as Orlando Patterson reminds us, African slaves were usually assigned arbitrary surnames, often some form of what their captors considered their geographical or tribal origin, but sometimes surnames simply not common among whites. ("Sunday” is an example.) In the U.S., the enslaved were rarely given surnames, a practice that led to peculiar lawsuits after emancipation, when a few former enslavers sued to prevent their former captives from adopting their surnames. The plaintiffs lost. One court called the claim "ridiculous.”

All of which is to say that outside influences have long been central to the practice of naming. In the case of Washington’s football team, until recently the authority seemed to rest entirely with the team’s principal owner, Daniel Snyder, who swore repeatedly that he would never change the team’s handle. For years, the National Football League carefully took no position.

But the seemingly absolute power was always an illusion. With the swift ideological ascendancy of the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, the power slipped in an instant from Snyder’s hands. And as the issue gained in salience, it was not only activists or news media figures who demanded change. The dam broke when the team’s corporate sponsors joined in, notably FedEx, which in effect threatened to abrogate a contract under which it pays the team several million dollars a year for naming rights over the stadium.

As it happens, the FedEx reaction is exactly what the research would predict, given that businesses linked to sports figures have historically lost significant market value when the athletes in question are involved in scandals. A sponsor whose name is linked to a sporting event can undergo an "image transfer,” in which the characteristics of the event are attributed to the sponsor. Thus the motive force for the revolt among the team’s sponsors isn’t, as some seem to think, a new corporate "wokeness”; it’s the old-fashioned determination of those companies to maximize value. One doesn’t do that by association with the unpopular.

In short (as some of us predicted years ago), market forces prevailed over the seemingly autocratic power of the owner to stick with the name he grew up with. True, skeptics keep pointing out that few Americans care what Washington’s football team is called. They have a point. A July poll from Morning Consult found that a plurality of respondents don’t see any need for the name to change. A much-touted 2016 survey found that as many as 90 percent of Native Americans find the name unoffensive when used for a sports team. Yet in a 2019 survey of 1,000 Native Americans, 49 percent of respondents found the name to be offensive.

In any case, arguments over what proportion of what group takes what position on the team’s name somewhat miss the point. Power over the process of name formation isn’t the same as majority rule. Those who opposed the team’s now-discarded name did so with a passion unmatched by the perhaps indifferent majority and, in the end, enlisted businesses in their campaign. The lesson is that naming is not a choice but a process, and in that process power relations are constantly shifting.

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include "The Emperor of Ocean Park,” and his latest nonfiction book is "Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America's Most Powerful Mobster.”

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