Redskins name change: Patent office may finally force it

The US Patent and Trademark Office will cancel trademarks for the Washington Redskins name on the grounds that it is 'disparaging to Native Americans.' If the decision is upheld, the potential financial loss could finally prompt a Redskins name change.

Nick Wass/AP/File
Washington Redskins punter Sav Rocca carries a football in his helmet before an NFL football game against the Cincinnati Bengals in Landover, Md. The US Patent and Trademark Office ruled Wednesday, June 18, 2014, that the Washington Redskins nickname is 'disparaging of Native Americans' and that the team's federal trademarks for the name must be canceled. The ruling comes after a campaign to change the name has gained momentum over the past year.

The fight over the Washington NFL team’s “Redskins” nickname has deep roots. Native American groups have been trying to get rid of the name, widely considered a racial slur, for decades, while team owner Dan Snyder has been unwavering in his determination to keep it (with the NFL’s staunch support). Now, the former group may finally get its wish.

The US Patent and Trademark Office announced Wednesday that it will be canceling six federal trademarks for the Redskins name, on the grounds that it is “disparaging to Native Americans.”  The ruling from the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board comes over a year after a hearing on the issue was held, in May 2013.

On its own, the ruling doesn’t force the Washington football team to find a new nickname. It just makes it financially inconvenient not to do so, because anyone can make and sell his own Redskins jerseys and not get sued.

That means the official Redskins jersey sold on the team store for $150 can now be bought for a fraction of the cost, says Victor Matheson, a sports economist and professor at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. “A huge chunk of the price is that trademark.”

Jersey supplier Nike could, in theory, make Redskins jerseys without paying for the exclusive privilege, he adds.  So could any other company: “If you’re Puma or Adidas and don’t have those properties, go right in there and make a Redskins jersey."

Politicians and Native American groups were quick to praise the ruling. “The US Patent Office has now restated the obvious truth … taxpayer resources cannot be used to help private companies profit off the promotion of dictionary defined racial slurs,” members of the Oneida Indian Nation, which launched the well-funded “Change the Mascot” campaign last year, said in a statement. “If the most basic sense of morality, decency and civility has not yet convinced the Washington team and the NFL to stop using this hateful slur, then hopefully today’s patent ruling will, if only because it imperils the ability of the team’s billionaire owner to keep profiting off the denigration and dehumanization of Native Americans.”

“The team that represents our nation’s capital should be a source of pride to all Americans,” a statement from House minority leader Nancy Pelosi reads.  “It’s long past time for the Washington football team to choose a new name.”

“The writing is on the wall. It is on the wall in giant, blinking, neon lights,” Sen. Harry Reid (D) of Nevada said on the Senate floor in Washington Wednesday. “This name will change and justice will be done for the tribes in Nevada and across the nation who care so deeply about this issue. Daniel Snyder may be the last person in the world to realize this, but it is just a matter of time until he is forced to do the right thing.”

This isn’t the franchise’s first trip through trademark court. Under US patent law, racial slurs and other terms found offensive to large portions of particular groups cannot be registered as trademarks. On those grounds, in fact, the patent office has refused several “Redskins” trademark requests in recent years, for terms including "Redskins Fanatics," and "Redskins Rooters," according to the Washington Post. 

But the original trademark was filed back in 1960, before the name was widely considered offensive. Efforts to get it removed date back to 1992. In 1999, opponents were actually successful, and the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board ruled that the name should be changed. But a federal judge overturned the ruling in 2003 on a technicality, saying that the trademark office hadn’t adequately explained why the Redskins mark was disparaging. A 2009 appeal of that ruling was unsuccessful.

The franchise is already planning to fight the decision. “This ruling – which of course we will appeal – simply addresses the team’s federal trademark registrations, and the team will continue to own and be able to protect its marks without the registrations,” reads a statement from Bob Raskopf, the team’s trademark attorney. “The evidence in the current claim is virtually identical to the evidence a federal judge decided was insufficient more than ten years ago. We expect the same ultimate outcome here.”

Mr. Snyder, too, has been steadfast in his commitment to keeping the name. He told USA Today Sports last year that he would "NEVER, you can use caps," change it, and reaffirmed that stance in a letter this past March while also announcing the launch of a charitable foundation for Native Americans. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has supported that stance, calling the Redskins name a “badge of honor” in remarks this past winter.

But all of that will go out the window if the team stands to lose money, Mr. Matheson suggests. “There’s no way Snyder loves the Redskins name so much that he’s willing to give up $75 or so he makes for every jersey," he says.

The team still could try to protect its trademark through state and local courts. Or it could give in and change the name. “Red Tails” and “Potomacs” are popular possibilities, and Twitter users are posting their suggestions under the hashtag, #newredskinsname. 

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