Jonathan Topaz and Lucy McCalmont, Politico, June 19, 2014
In a major blow to the Washington Redskins, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office on Wednesday canceled six federal trademarks of the team name because it was found to be “disparaging” to Native Americans.
“We decide, based on the evidence properly before us, that these registrations must be cancelled because they were disparaging to Native Americans at the respective times they were registered,” the patent office’s Trademark Trial and Appeal Board wrote in a 2-1 decision.
The Redskins team name has become a divisive political issue over the past few years, with even President Barack Obama saying the club should consider changing the name. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senate Democrats also have pressed owner Dan Snyder to change the name. On the other side, conservatives have either defended keeping the name, arguing that it isn’t a slur, or been silent on the uproar.
The trademark attorney for the Redskins, Bob Raskopf, downplayed the ruling and vowed the team will win an ensuing appeal.
“We’ve seen this story before. And just like last time, today’s ruling will have no effect at all on the team’s ownership of and right to use the Redskins name and logo,” he said in a statement, citing rulings in 1999 and 2003. “We are confident we will prevail once again, and that the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board’s divided ruling will be overturned on appeal.”
Reid lauded the trademark decision on the Senate floor Wednesday, saying it reinforces the push for the Washington Redskins to change its name.
Reid called the name a “sad reminder” of the bigotry Native Americans have faced and said the issue “is extremely important to Native Americans all across the country.”
“Daniel Snyder may be the last person in the world to realize this, but it’s just a matter of time until he is forced to do the right thing and change the name,” he said.
Five Native Americans in 2006 brought the petition, Blackhorse v. Pro Football, Inc., aimed at stripping the teams’ half-dozen trademark registrations for the term “Redskins.”
“I hope this ruling brings us a step closer to that inevitable day when the name of the Washington football team will be changed,” said plaintiff Amanda Blackhorse. “The team’s name is racist and derogatory.”
Critics of the name who had turned to the trademark office note that the ruling against the team does not stop the organization from continuing to use the term. But it could potentially devalue it because anyone would be able to use the unprotected name, meaning that companies not affiliated with the team could, for instance, print and sell T-shirts, posters and whatever other products they wanted without having to share any revenues with the Redskins’ owner.
Under the trademark office’s decision, the NFL also will lose several benefits of federal registration of the trademark, including the use of the federal registration symbol.
In his dissent, Judge Marc Bergsman said the Native Americans hadn’t proven their case.
“By this dissent, I am not suggesting that the term ‘redskins’ was not disparaging in 1967, 1974, 1978, and 1990 (the registration dates at issue). Rather, my conclusion is that the evidence petitioners put forth fails to show that it was,” Bergsman’s dissent read.
The Redskins can appeal the decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in Washington, D.C., or file a civil action in District Court. The trademark office faced a similar case brought against the team in the 1990s, when, despite ruling in favor of that Native American several years later, the board’s decision was eventually thrown out in court on an appeal.
In May, 50 senators–48 Democrats and two independents–wrote NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell urging him to change the name. “The N.F.L. can no longer ignore this and perpetuate the use of this name as anything but what it is: a racial slur,” the letter read. The letter, spearheaded by Cantwell, was not circulated among Republicans.