A government agency Wednesday canceled the trademark registration of the “Redskins” nickname for Washington’s NFL team, saying that “a substantial composite of Native Americans found the term to be disparaging.”
The ruling, which the team said it would appeal, is the latest indication of mounting disapproval of one of the league’s most established brands.
Daniel Snyder, the Washington franchise’s owner, has rebuffed criticism of the name and insisted that he won’t change it, and Roger Goodell, the commissioner of the NFL, has supported him.
The decision by the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board, part of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, was hailed by some Native American groups and members of Congress who have pressured Goodell to force Snyder to abandon the name.
The board does not have the authority to ban the use of the term, and the registration of the trademark is likely to be held intact while the team appeals, so there will be little immediate impact on sales of team merchandise.
In a statement, Bob Raskopf, a trademark lawyer for the team, said: “We’ve seen this story before. And just like last time, today’s ruling will have no effect at all on the team’s ownership of and right to use the Redskins name and logo.
“We are confident we will prevail once again and that the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board’s divided ruling will be overturned on appeal.”
But if the decision is upheld on appeal, a process that could take years, others will be free to use the name and the team logo on clothing and other gear, which could theoretically lead to more of the team’s merchandise on the market, not less.
The team could still try to defend its common law rights, which are based on use, not registration, to stop third parties from using it.
The decision Wednesday reignited a longstanding and bitter debate about the use of the name, which some Native American groups have said is derogatory. Snyder has said the name is a sign of respect, and he has pointed to several surveys that show a majority of Native Americans support the name. Goodell, who grew up a Washington fan, has defended Snyder.
The Kansas City Star is among several media outlets who do not use the nickname unless it is the focus of a news story or debate.
In a 2-1 decision, the board said that “the recognition that this racial designation based on skin color is disparaging to Native Americans” is demonstrated “by the near complete drop-off in usage of “redskins” as a reference to Native Americans beginning in the 1960s.”
The decision came in a heavily footnoted 81-page opinion, accompanied by an 18-page dissent. It was similar to one issued in 1999 that was overturned four years later on appeal, largely because the courts decided that the plaintiffs had waited too long to file their case.
The case was refiled in 2006 with a younger set of plaintiffs.
Appeals from the decision of the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board can be made to a U.S. District Court or the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.
Amanda Blackhorse, one of five petitioners, said in a statement: “It is a great victory for Native Americans and for all Americans. We filed our petition eight years ago and it has been a tough battle ever since. I hope this ruling brings us a step closer to that inevitable day when the name of the Washington football team will be changed.”
Senate Democrats who have urged the NFL to pressure the team into changing the name celebrated the decision and said it is only a matter of time before Snyder has to relent.
“The writing is on the wall, on the wall in giant, blinking neon lights,” said Sen. Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat and the Senate majority leader, who has called the name a slur.
Sen. Maria Cantwell, a Washington Democrat and a former chair of the Committee on Indian Affairs, acknowledged the decision is not the final word, but she said she hopes it will spur a re-evaluation by the team.
“I hope that all the business decisions at the team will be made with the understanding that this is no longer a business case and we will get off of this slur of a name that we need to change,” said Cantwell, who rounded up 50 Democratic senators — half of the Senate — to get behind a letter to the NFL calling for a name change.
According to trademark lawyer Jim Rosini, teams such as the Chiefs, Cleveland Indians and Atlanta Braves probably wouldn’t lose their trademark protection. Rosini told Bloomberg News that their names are seen as more generic than offensive.