After a protracted debate regarding the ostensible insensitivity of the team’s name, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office decided this week to strike down the Washington Redskins’ trademark claim.
The move came as the result of a case filed with the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board, prompting the agency to declare the team’s name is “disparaging to Native Americans.”
Since federal law prohibits any trademark that might bring another party “into contempt or disrepute,” plaintiffs in the case demanded the team’s registration be cancelled.
This marks the second such attempt at this result. In 1999, a group of Native Americans tried to strip the team of its trademark; however, the court dismissed the case following an appeal a decade later.
The case that precipitated this week’s decision began in 2006. For the five individuals behind the suit, the ruling is cause for celebration.
One plaintiff, Amanda Blackhorse, called it “a great victory for Native Americans and for all Americans.”
While the Redskins will be able to continue using the name, the trademark loss prevents team owners from pursuing legal action against those who use its logo or name on unofficial merchandise.
Jesse Witten, the lead attorney representing the plaintiffs, joined in the celebration.
“This victory was a long time coming and reflects the hard work of many attorneys at our firm,” he said.
The team’s trademark attorney, however, released a statement indicating his belief that the Redskins franchise “will prevail once again, and that the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board’s divided ruling will be overturned on appeal.”
Bob Raskopf further impugned the plaintiff’s case, citing the court’s dissenting opinion that “petitioners did not submit any evidence regarding the Native American population during the relevant time frame, nor did they introduce any evidence or argument as to what comprises a substantial composite of that population thereby leaving it to the majority to make the petitioner’s case have some semblance of meaning.”
Author and retired clinical psychologist Robin Ladue weighed in on the development in an exclusive interview with Western Journalism. An enrolled member of the Cowlitz Tribe of Indians, Ladue has advocated for such a result for many years.
She disputed the “common lore” that the name was originally chosen as a way to honor the Native American members of the early team.
“In fact,” she said, “the name was chosen by a deeply racist man, George Preston Marshall. He was the last owner to segregate his team, being forced by the federal government to do so. In an AP article from his early ownership of the franchise, Marshall stated he changed the name to ‘Redskins’ to differentiate it from other professional sports teams with the name ‘Braves,’ which was the former name of the team. It was never intended to honor Native Americans.”
Ladue expressed criticism of those who support the name without recognizing its inherent insensitivity.
In the more than 40 years now that Native people have fought against this racist name, there has been and continues to be arguments made to support the continued use of the team moniker. The vast majority of people in this country know almost nothing of the Native history of this land or that the name “redskin” was a term that described the bounty paid for “dead redskins,” a never-ending reminder of the legacy of genocide of the aboriginal people of this land. The term “redskins” carries no honor. Contrary to a poll from 10 years ago that claimed 90% of Native people support the name, there is a groundswell of trans tribal support and community support to rid the NFL of the racism of this name. The refusal to address this racism by the NFL is puzzling, particularly in the face of the huge outcry over Donald Sterling’s statements. It seems that some racism is acceptable and some is not.
She noted that she has seen the effects of racism and disputes the claim that it is “just a name.”
As for the trademark ruling, she joined the victorious plaintiffs in their celebration.
I was thrilled to see the ruling of the patent office. It is way past time that the damage in this name causes is called out and not supported. To those who say the government is interfering with business, I would say, in this case, ‘Good!’ The government outlawed human trafficking and slavery. The government outlawed Jim Crow laws. Only a few would say it was bad that the government made such actions illegal.
Of course, not everyone was pleased with the ruling. Twitter reactions revealed the opinion of some team fans and commentators.
The Redskins trademark decision is blatantly content non-neutral and unconstitutional. Absurd and authors should be fired
— Hugh Hewitt (@hughhewitt) June 18, 2014
— Jack Furnari (@JackBPR) June 18, 2014
We should focus less on “Is Redskins Offensive” and more on, “Hey, the gov’t just outlawed speech IT deemed offensive.” YIKES.
— Renna (@RennaW) June 18, 2014
Photo Credit: dbking (Creative Commons)