Controversy over "Washington Redskins" team name remains unresolved

By Askia Muhammad -Senior Editor- | Last updated: Aug 28, 2014 - 10:12:03 AM

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In this Oct. 13, 2013 file photo, Native American Steve Morales, of Dallas, holds up a sign as he joins others in protest outside of an NFL football game between the Washington Redskins and Dallas Cowboys in Arlington, Texas. Photo: AP/Wide World photos


WASHINGTON - With the new NFL season poised to kick off in early September, the Washington franchise went to federal court Aug. 14 in an attempt to stem the hemorrhage of bad publicity and legal calamities the team encountered over the summer as it holds on to its racist nickname and logo which have been found to be offensive to Native Americans.

After the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office canceled six federal trademark registrations for the name “Washington Redskins” on June 18 on the grounds that the football team’s name is “disparaging to Native Americans” and thus in violation of federal trademark laws banning offensive or disparaging language, the team’s lawyers filed a counter-suit in the U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Va. against the five plaintiffs who won the patent ruling.

By suing in federal court, the team is asking a judge to allow them to defend the name with their own evidence, which owner Dan Snyder contends celebrates rather than denigrates Native Americans.

The Patent and Trademark board, by a 2-1 vote, agreed with the five plaintiffs and with the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) which filed a court brief with almost identical language. The Washington team’s name “is patently offensive, disparaging and demeaning and perpetrates a centuries-old stereotype,” the group complained in a brief NCAI filed in the case.

For months there has been a growing campaign with church groups, former Hall of Fame Washington team members and other athletes, as well as President Barack Obama, the Washington D.C. Council, and 50 U.S. Senators urging the team to change the racist name.

The senators sent a letter to the NFL Commissioner asking him to intervene, in the same way the NBA got involved in the racist behavior of L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling eventually selling the team out from under him. And Martin O’Malley, the Governor of Maryland where the team’s stadium is located also called for a name change.

On top of that, the team now faces another legal hurdle. The University of Minnesota wants the Washington team to wear throwback jerseys without the team name or logo for its Nov. 2 game against the Minnesota Vikings being held at the college’s stadium. The college leases its TCF Bank Stadium to the Vikings as the team’s new stadium gets built for a scheduled 2016 opening.

The University has also asked that the game not have any Washington apparel or paraphernalia sold on the premise; that the word “Redskins” not be uttered by the game’s public address announcer; and that the team’s moniker not appear on the scoreboard or in the program guide or other game-related print or digital material.

Meanwhile Gene Simmons, front man for the rock group Kiss, blasted the name in a way that should have hit close to home for Dan Snyder, who is Jewish.

“I would not like a sports team called the kikes,” Simmons said recently on Fox News. “If you take the historic point of view—and I’m not the one to validate it or not—if Redskins was an insult to American Indians, then absolutely, the team should change its name.” Simmons, who was born in Israel and is the son of a Nazi concentration camp survivor, said people can argue freedom of speech, but “I’m allowed to say fire, I’m just not allowed to stand up in a movie theater and yell ‘fire,’ because that’s incitement.”

The term “redskins” is considered derogatory because in this country’s early days it was once used by bounty hunters who murdered Indians as a way for accounting for the number killed. The scalps or the “redskins” verified the number of dead.

“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 Trademark Trial and Appeal Board wrote in its opinion in June.

While the decision eventually renders a blow to the team’s ability to exclusively market and sell paraphernalia using the offensive name, the current protection remains in effect while the challenges work their way through the federal courts. If this ruling stands, then if anyone printed the name on sweatshirts or other apparel without the team’s permission, it would become more difficult to legally go after such groups. The ruling involves six uses of the “Redskins” name trademarked by the team from 1967 to 1990, causing the team to lose a significant portion of its ability to protect the financial interests connected to it.

In 1999 the Trademark Board issued a similar ruling in a case that was first filed in 1992. That decision was overturned in 2003 on a technicality that the plaintiffs waited too long after the name was trademarked in 1967 to complain. That case went to the Supreme Court in 2005 which declined to hear it, allowing a lower court ruling favoring the team to stand.

Former U.S. Sen. Ben “Nighthorse” Campbell
While this new ruling doesn’t force the team to abandon the name, it comes at a time of increasing criticism of the team from political, religious and sports figures who say it’s time for a change. Former U.S. Sen. Ben “Nighthorse” Campbell, himself a Native American who was a Democrat turned Republican from Colorado, declared at an all-day symposium on the subject earlier this year that the four most offensive words ever spoken to him were: “savage,” “squaw,” “buck,” and of course “redskin.”

“We believe that the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board ignored both federal case law and the weight of the evidence, and we look forward to having a federal court review this obviously flawed decision,” team lawyer Bob Raskopf said in a statement when the lawsuit was filed. But the Patent Board disagreed.

“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 board wrote in its opinion.

“The Trademark Trial and Appeal Board agreed with our clients that the team’s name and trademarks disparage Native Americans. The Board ruled that the Trademark Office should never have registered these trademarks in the first place,” Jesse Witten, the plaintiffs’ lead attorney, said in a press release when the patents were overturned.

“We presented a wide variety of evidence – including dictionary definitions and other reference works, newspaper clippings, movie clips, scholarly articles, expert linguist testimony, and evidence of the historic opposition by Native American groups – to demonstrate that the word ‘redskin’ is an ethnic slur.” For instance, dictionaries today routinely label “redskin” as usually offensive. Until the late 1960s, dictionaries typically identified it as a neutral term.

Fifty Indian organizations, in addition to the National Congress of American Indians, have now called for eliminating Native American names and mascots in sports.

In addition, the trademark office has implicitly recognized a shift in how “redskins” is viewed. From 1996 to 2002, it rebuffed the team at least three times when it tried to register new brands using the word. In each case, examiners cited disparagement as the grounds for action.

The team ownership and some of its fans however, insist they are “honoring” the bravery of Native Americans by imitating tribal dress and customs which for the most part they don’t understand. Dr. C. Richard King, co-editor of Encyclopedia of Native Americans in Sports, and a professor at Washington State University says those who believe that the name is an “honor” are simply holding on to a “sincere fiction.” The reality is that objectifying Native people with sports team names in Washington, Kansas City, Cleveland, and Atlanta, is ugly and offensive.

While the Washington team has used this offensive nickname for 80 years, The petitioners argued that the word redskins is a racial slur—like “chink,” or “wetback,” or “raghead,” or the “n-word”—and therefore shouldn’t be entitled to federal trademark protection. The team’s lawyers insist that the moniker is wholly well-intentioned, and an inoffensive honorific of sorts, rooted in pride and tradition.

Since 1968 when Native groups began urging high schools and colleges to voluntarily drop names tied to Native Americans, hundreds of schools have discontinued their use of Indian names and mascots. Current NCAA policy prevents schools with “hostile and abusive” American Indian-related names from participating in championship or playoff games. Stanford University, St. Bonaventure University, The College of William & Mary and Dartmouth College have all dropped their Indian monikers.

The team says they will ask the court to consider “serious constitutional issues,” including whether the ruling penalizes the team’s right of free speech and whether the team has been unfairly deprived of “valuable and long-held intellectual property rights.”

The group of five Native Americans challenging the name is equally confident. “This effort is doomed to fail,” said Amanda Blackhorse, the lead plaintiff according to published reports. “But if they want to prolong this litigation which has already gone on for 22 years, I guess they have that prerogative.

“If people wouldn’t dare call a Native American (individual person) a ‘redskin’ because they know it is offensive, how can an NFL football team have this name?” Ms. Blackhorse said. “We know that time is on our side for a change in the team’s name, and we are confident we will win once again at this stage of the litigation.”