As the fight over the Washington Redskins' offensive name becomes increasingly politicized, the federal government just took the most decisive action to date toward forcing a change.
The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office ruled Wednesday to cancel six of the team's federal trademark registrations, determining that the name is "disparaging of Native Americans." In its decision, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board make clear that the decision does not actually force the team to change its name and could be subject to an appeal. (You'd better believe owner Dan Snyder is already assembling his team of Injustice League power attorneys to fight the decision to the death.)
While the ruling doesn't prevent the use of the name, it hits Snyder where it hurts the most: his wallet. By losing federal trademark protection of their name and logo, the Redskins would have great difficulty in preventing third-party merchandise from being sold. The team could argue that it has a common-law claim, by virtue of having used the name so long, but that's a tougher fight after the patent office decision. "Counterfeit" goods might not be counterfeit at all, opening the floodgates for black-market sellers to undercut overpriced "official" team merchandise.
If you're worried about the implications of the federal government meddling in a private company's affairs to this extent, it may ease your mind to know that there is precedent here. Under trademark law, the PTO reserves the right to reject an application if it "consists of or comprises immoral, deceptive, or scandalous matter; or matter which may disparage or falsely suggest a connection with persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols, or bring them into contempt, or disrepute." The office has exercised this clause many times, rejecting an application for "Khoran" liquor, since alcohol is considered sinful in the Islamic holy book. Basically any application involving the N-word is rejected, including Damon Wayans's attempt to trademark his clothing line, "Nigga." And a skiing equipment company was turned away from using the term "squaw."
There were hints the PTO might rule against the team. In the last few months, the office has rejected trademark applications for "Washington Redskins Potatoes," "Redskin Hog Rinds," "Redskin Review," "Redskins Fanatics," "Redskin Pigskins," "Redskin Rooters" and "Washington Redskins Cheerleaders."
The fight to rescind the team's trademark registrations has been a legal battle for more than two decades. One case was filed in 1992, with an appeals board within the PTO ruling to cancel the trademarks in 1994. In 1999, the Redskins' parent company sued to overturn the decision. Ten years later, they won the battle on little more than a technicality. In 2009, a U.S. appeals court ruled that the plaintiffs had waited too long to file their claim against the name.
While Snyder will likely file another appeal against Wednesday's ruling, he's not likely to get off on another technicality. If anything, the PTO's recent decisions have put to rest the question of whether the term "redskins" is a slur; it's now a matter of public record. It seems we might finally be nearing the end of a decades-long fight to rid the league and the country of one of the sports world's most offensive anachronisms.
Now, onto Chief Wahoo.
To contact the writer of this article: Kavitha A. Davidson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To contact the editor responsible for this article: Tobin Harshaw at email@example.com.