USPTO Cancels Washington Redskins Trademark, Adding Pressure for Name Change

Andrew Klips  |

The widespread battle to get the NFL’s Washington Redskins to follow the lead of other teams, such as Ohio’s Miami University, to change their name took on some additional pressure for the U.S. government on Wednesday.  The United States Patent and Trademark Office has officially cancelled the team’s trademark, calling the name “disparaging to Native Americans.” ThinkProgress reported that six trademarks have been canceled related to the Washington Redskins.

The decision of the USPTO was the result of a case initiated in 2006 by the law firm Drinker Biddle & Reath on behalf of a group of five Native Americans (Amanda Blackhorse, Marcus Briggs-Cloud, Philip Gover, Jillian Pappan, and Courtney Tsotigh) wishing to see the team name changed. The foundation of the case leverages federal law that bans trademarks for words that disparage groups or individuals or create contempt or disrepute amongst these groups or people. 

For example, in 2011, the USPTO denied the Asian-American dance-rock band The Slants a trademark on their name on the grounds that the name is a derogatory term and offensive to people of Asian descent. The group is still fighting the USPTO decision, claiming that their Asian heritage is not being disparaged by the name and that the agency is not considering the relevant marketplace and context, a similar argument used by lesbian motorcycle group Dykes on Bikes to win a years-long battle for its trademark.

The movement against the Redskins has been gaining momentum, including California’s Yocha Dehe Wintum Nation, in association with the National Congress of American Indians, running an ad during Game 3 of the NBA Finals throughout select markets, including Washington, D.C. The video on YouTube has received more than 3 million views.

Minority Leader of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi commented on the video’s YouTube page, “It’s time to choose another name.  In fact, it’s long overdue.”  D.C. mayor Vincent Gray has voiced his opinion that it is time for a change as well.  Senator Harry Reid (D-Nevada) this month vowed that he wouldn’t attend a Redskins home game at FedEx (FDX) Field in Landover, Maryland until the team changes its name.

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In fact, half of the U.S. Senators, mostly Democrats, signed a letter penned by Senator Reid and Senator Maria Cantwell (D-Washington) to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell last month, encouraging him to endorse a name change for the Washington football franchise.  The letter comes in the wake of the National Basketball Association recently imposing a lifelong ban on Los Angeles Clipper’s owner Donald Sterling for racist comments.

“Today, we urge you and the National Football League to send the same clear message as the NBA did: that racism and bigotry have no place in professional sports,” the Senators wrote in the letter.

Last weekend, members of the United Church of Christ’s mid-Atlantic conference agreed to boycott Redskins’ games and paraphernalia until a name change occurs. The organization canvases 180 congregations in D.C. and surrounding area and has about 40,000 members. 

The battle to make the Skins change their name has been raging on for more than two decades, including an original ruling in 1999 that the name was disparaging to Native American, which was then reversed by a Washington D.C. district court of appeals in 2003. The Redskins name change controversy flared up again in November 2013, and recently it has reached all new heights and become a lightening rod for the city and NFL. It seems more likely than ever that change is coming unless Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder continues to foolishly stand on low moral ground.

The pressure is now heavy on Snyder, who has remained adamant that the name is not a slur or meant to be offensive. Snyder had reportedly hired lobbyists to defend the team’s name and even started the Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation to show his support of Native Americans on the whole. 

As it stands now, the USPTO’s decision still doesn’t mean that Snyder has to change the team’s name, only that it loses federal trademark protection.  It does however, put more pressure on Snyder and should spur concerns about a potential impact on merchandising revenue for the organization.  The NFL will likely have a serious problem with the possibility of any decline in sales because of the league’s revenue-sharing model.

For those that either like the Redskins name or just want to get some Redskins gear before any potential name change; there is still time.  The Redskins’ trademark attorney issued a statement today saying that the team will be filing an appeal and is confident that they will prevail again, just like in the previous trademark case.  In the interim, they can still use the trademark throughout the appeal process.

Other pro sports teams that have faced scrutiny for their name and/or mascot are the Chicago Blackhawks, Cleveland Indians, Kansas City Chiefs, and Atlanta Braves.

On a side note, anyone wonder what FedEx thinks about the Redskins name, given that the stadium dons their name? 

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