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Redskins trademark ruling, explained

Five representatives of Native Americans won their argument that the term "Redskins" is disparaging. OK, so what happens next?

Kevin C. Cox

At NFLshop.com, t-shirts are selling for $40. This is not because the shirt is especially nice and certainly not because it is exceptionally rare, but only because it has a team name and logo on it, and the only people who are legally allowed to use that name and that logo set the prices. After a Trademark Trial and Appeal Board hearing on Wednesday morning ruled that the "Redskins" moniker used by Washington is disparaging, the NFL may lose their ability to put a pricetag and a wildly offensive nickname on some clothing and count the cash.

The legal process is far from over. An attorney for the team said in a statement following the decision that they would appeal the Office's decision to federal court, where no new evidence can be brought in but legal questions surrounding the case can be re-argued. The federal court can choose to not hear the case at all (deferring to Wednesday's decision) or hear the case and side with either the Native Americans or the NFL.

Other teams under fire, such as the Cleveland Indians or Atlanta Braves, are safe for now. The term "Indians" doesn't have the same vicious charge as "Redskins," and the federal agency in charge of Native American affairs is after all named the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The Indians' Chief Wahoo and the  Braves' "Tomahawk Chop" make many uncomfortable, but they don't have the same stigmatic history of genocide and organized violence that "Redskins" does.

It will be a long time before we know the next step in the NFL case. It was originally filed in August 2006, and courts tend to deliberate on things where billions of dollars are on the line and lawyers are fighting in those dollars' names. It will likely be a year or more before the federal court decides to take the case, and if they do -- and again, it is almost certain that they will -- there will be another multi-year period before they come to a decision. It is in the NFL's interest to stretch out the process as long as possible, because they have the right to the name and time to strategize their escape from the name while proceedings are ongoing.

If they eventually do lose the case, the Redskins do not have to give up their name and logo. They instead are under threat of losing their right to be the only ones to use their name and logo. Anyone can print up their own merchandise -- clothing, welcome mats, beer coozies, you name it -- and use the name and logo without a fuss, undercutting the Redskins themselves and their ability to make a profit. Since the NFL is, more than anything else, a profit-making machine they will change the name in order to protect their right to make as much money as possible.

The Redskins, technically, are not required by this decision or any law to change their name. They could choose to keep the name and be unprofitable, but that is not an attractive choice for an NFL franchise. Better to change the name to something one can make money off of than keep an old and unprofitable name out of a sense of tradition. The Indian nations are not forcing Dan Snyder to change the name of the team. Dan Snyder's thrill of money is.