Andrew Masson is an IPilogue Writer and a 1L JD candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School.
After a year and a half, the Washington Football Team has recently released their new team name: the Washington Commanders. The Washington Commanders stopped using their team name of 87 years at the end of the 2019-2020 season as it was considered an offensive Indigenous slur. However, due to complications in finding a new team name, they spent the last season as the Washington Football Team. The reason this happened—and why you are reading about it on an IP blog—is because one of the largest roadblocks in confirming a new name was the presence of existing trademarks. In particular, a person named Philip Martin McCauley had filed 44 different trademarks since 2016, many of which being ‘Washington’ with a variation of a potential team name, including the Red Wolves, Bravehearts, Pigskins, and even Warriors.
At the turn of the new year, team president Jason Wright announced the process of determining a new team name and acknowledged that legal challenges were a major driving force in selecting the Washington Commanders. However, a large part of these issues seems to be self-inflicted as Professor Joshua Sarnoff noted the team’s failure to adopt a different name (and attain the appropriate trademark) earlier has made picking a new name much more difficult. The team’s owner Dan Snyder also stated he had no interest in pursuing any team name with a legal conflict, which is an interesting approach to dealing with trademark squatting (i.e., those that file but do not use their trademarks). Instead of paying or fighting for a name that is trademarked but not used, the team just worked around them.
The drawback to this strategy is that one of the most popular and meaningful options for a new team name, the Washington Red Wolves, could not be acquired. Shortly after the initial announcement of a team name change on July 13, 2020, Red Wolves became a popular option among fans. However, on September 3, 2020, McCauley trademarked the “Washington Red Wolves”.
I am unable to determine the motivation behind McCauley’s trademark, but the part I find perplexing is that the Washington Commanders seemed unprepared for these issues when the team’s name change was announced. This could be an oversight due to the infrequency that professional teams change names, or team owners and management were not passionate about any specific team name and so they planned to just pick their favourite among the options without legal conflict. Although a rare occurrence, I am sure the Washington Commanders’ difficulties will inform the actions of teams that may be faced with similar problems moving forward, such as the Chicago Blackhawks (NHL), or Atlanta Braves (MLB). With the creation of new teams and leagues, especially with the rise of esports, team managers and owners ought to be careful about when they announce teams and take the time to check for any IP conflicts beforehand.