In the wake of Wednesday’s finding by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office that the Washington NFL team’s trademarks are “disparaging to Native Americans,” it seems like we may be drawing closer to a showdown between team owner Daniel Snyder and the NFL commissioner’s office. What would that showdown look like? As the co-host of Slate’s Negotiation Academy podcast, I’m intrigued by the dynamics involved. For the sake of this exercise, let’s assume that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and the 31 other NFL owners all privately wish that Snyder would make this issue go away by changing the team’s name. How might they negotiate with Snyder?
It’s important to remember that Snyder has previously declared himself completely unwilling to compromise. “We’ll never change the name. It's that simple,” said Snyder in a 2013 interview with USA Today. “NEVER—you can use caps.” That sort of dramatic tactic is redolent of a frowned-upon negotiation approach known as “positional bargaining.” In positional bargaining, I forcefully state my position (I won’t accept less than $50 for this Sonny Jurgensen football card) and you forcefully state yours (I won’t pay more than $10), and then we either give up and walk away or we haggle, taking a series of new positions. (I won’t accept less than $45 for this card—I mean, geez, Sonny Jurgensen!)
As noted in Roger Fisher and William Ury’s seminal negotiation text, Getting to Yes, this is an inefficient and inhospitable method of arriving at an agreement. It can also lead to one side painting itself into a corner. “Your ego becomes identified with your position,” Fisher and Ury write, in what sounds like a perfect description of Daniel Snyder. “You now have a new interest in ‘saving face’—in reconciling future action with past positions—making it less and less likely that any agreement will wisely reconcile the parties’ original interests.”
Herein lies one of Snyder’s big problems. To change the team name now, after his bold pronouncements, would mean a serious loss of face. Negotiation theory suggests you’re better off thinking about your underlying interests rather than boldly stating your surface positions. Presumably, Snyder’s primary interest is to run a profitable and winning football team, the ownership of which brings him rewards both financial and emotional. I find it very hard to believe that this interest is in fact secondary to Snyder’s stated interest in maintaining the current team name—even if Snyder thinks that keeping the name will buoy his profits (by selling more merchandise and tickets than he would with a new name and logo) or his emotions (due to his longtime love of the name, the logo, and the team’s traditions, which he is reluctant to relinquish).
If Snyder and the NFL did sit down to hash this out, the first big factor to consider would be Snyder’s BATNA. This is negotiation lingo for “best alternative to a negotiated agreement.” If Snyder walked away from the table without making any deal, where would he stand?