Washington Redskins can keep team name; Supreme Court refuses native Americans' suit

Seven native Americans had sued to force the Washington Redskins to change the team name. The Supreme Court on Monday let stand a ruling that their challenge came too late.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Mascots of the Dallas Cowboys and the Washington Redskins appear during a 2005 game at FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland.
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A group of native Americans have lost their bid to force the Washington Redskins pro football team to change its name because they consider it to be a racial slur.

On Monday, the US Supreme Court, in a one-line ruling, refused to take up the case. The action lets stand a decision by a federal appeals court in Washington that the native Americans had waited too long to bring their challenge to the Redskins trademark, and thus forfeited any right to sue.

Some analysts view the case as political correctness run amok. But for nearly 40 years, native American organizations have been working to end the use of Indian names and symbols as sports mascots in the US – at high schools, colleges, and among professional teams.

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They have had significant success at the college and high school levels, persuading officials that Indian names and mascots for sports teams are derogatory and demeaning to native Americans. For example, between 1991 and 2008, 11 high schools and two colleges discontinued the use of "Redskins" as their team name. They include Miami University in Ohio and Southern Nazarene University in Oklahoma.

Similar efforts at persuasion have been aimed at the Washington Redskins football team, dating from 1972. But the team insists that its trademark team name does not disparage native Americans. The team has invested millions of dollars to enhance and promote the trademark name on telecasts, in advertising, and on merchandise.

The Redskins name originated in Boston in 1933. The football team was called the Boston Braves, but the owner decided to rename the team the Boston Redskins in honor of the team's head coach, William "Lone Star" Dietz, who was a native American, writes lawyer Robert Raskopf in a brief filed on behalf of the team.

The name became the registered trademark of the team in 1967. The seven native Americans didn't file their lawsuit until 1992 – 25 years later.

Trademarks can be challenged on grounds that they disparage someone. But the football team argued that disparagement must be determined at the time the trademark is registered.

Lawyers for the native Americans say the name was disparaging and offensive in 1967 and that the trademark should never have been issued. They argued that the law permits them to bring a disparagement lawsuit at any time.

An appeals board at the US trademark office agreed with the native Americans that the term "redskins" is today and has historically been a disparaging racial epithet. But that decision was overturned by a federal judge and the Washington-based appeals court in subsequent rulings that the group had waited too long to bring its challenge.

The term "redskins" is now, and always has been, a derogatory and offensive term, according to a friend-of-the-court brief filed by the National Congress of American Indians and other major native American tribes and groups.

"The organizations and Indian tribes stand together to express with one voice their collective opinion on the fundamental fact underlying this case: the 'Redskins' trademark is disparaging to native Americans and perpetuates a centuries-old stereotype of native Americans as 'blood-thirsty savages,' 'noble warriors,' and an ethnic group 'frozen in history.' "

The National Congress offers a different version of the historic pedigree of the term Redskins. "The term 'Redskins' had its origins in the commodification of Indian skins and body parts; these 'Redskins' were required as proof of Indian kill in order for bounty hunters to receive payment," the NCIA brief says.

Officials with the Washington-based football team maintain that Redskins is an honorific which highlights the proud heritage of native Americans.

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