The Washington professional football franchise has come under increasing scrutiny over the past few years for its continued use of the nickname “Redskins,” with critics deriding the use of a pejorative term as the team name and castigating team owner Dan Snyder’s unwillingness to even consider changing it. A recent ruling by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) may force the issue.
The USPTO’s Trademark Trial and Appeal Board voted 2-1 to rescind six trademarks related to the team name and past logos, stating that the name “Redskins” is “disparaging to Native Americans,” although the team’s current logo is still protected. The case was first brought to the board in 2006 by members of four Native American tribes. In its ruling, the board cited that its mandate was to determine whether the name was offensive to the people that it referenced at the time that they were registered, without consideration for whether the name is offensive to the population at large. The now-cancelled trademarks had been filed between the years of 1967 and 1990.
The team’s lawyers have stated that the ruling will be appealed, and the team will retain its trademark protection while the case continues through the legal system. Even if the final ruling goes against the Washington Redskins franchise, there is no guarantee that the team would decide to change its name, or even necessarily need to. The team can continue to use the name and attempt to curb usage of the name by third parties by citing common-law rights over the name, a trickier and potentially much more litigious proposition.
Should Washington decide to change its name, it wouldn’t be the first time a team using a Native American nickname has done so. Both Miami University and St. John’s University previously used the nicknames Redmen for their teams before changing them to the Redhawks and Red Storm, respectively, although those decisions were based upon the mounting pressure of public opinion rather than the loss of trademark protection. Other teams such as the Cleveland Indians, Atlanta Braves, and Chicago Blackhawks have faced similar pressure over the years and have held firm, though none have seen their bottom line threatened to the extent that Washington now faces. Snyder, the team’s owner since 1999, has insisted that he will never change the team’s name, despite pressure from 50 US senators and even the President. But with the possible loss of merchandising revenue and risk of further bad publicity, the team may be in the market for a new name sooner rather than later.
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