If it was possible to embarrass Washington businessman Dan Snyder into changing the patently offensive name of his Redskins National Football League team, the name would have been changed long ago. But if a ruling Wednesday withstands the appeal, Snyder won’t be able to claim the name as a trademark.
In a legal challenge that stretches back more than two decades, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office on Wednesday canceled the trademark status for the team name and logo, citing the word’s status as an ethnic slur “disparaging to Native Americans” at the time trademarks were issued for the name, the logo and other related elements.
Among the more interesting parts of the 177-page ruling: That while some Native Americans might not object to the use, a substantial portion of them do, which makes the term problematic. And it noted that Native Americans first approached the Washington franchise in the 1960s asking for the name and logo to be changed.
The ruling also includes an interesting analysis of the use of the term, citing evidence and testimony that from 1975 to 1989, the word “redskins” appeared in newspapers and magazines 136,473 times, the vast majority of them in reference to sports teams (not just Washington; college teams used the term also). A more distilled search found only 71 uses of the word in reference to Native Americans, a rare use that the ruling said evidences that “redskins” is not a “neutral synonym” for Native Americans. “Of those occurrences, many examples use the term in the context of racial slurs or discrimination,” the ruling said.
So what does this mean? Nothing, at the moment. The franchise lost a similar challenge filed in 1992, but eventually prevailed during the appeals process over the technical issue of whether the Native American plaintiffs had sufficient legal standing to bring the challenge (the issue was whether one of the plaintiffs had waited too long after his 18th birthday to file the action).
The trademark protection remains in place until the end of the legal process, likely to take years. If it ultimately is upheld, Snyder will still be able to use the name and logo, but it will be harder to sue others creating and selling the team logo jerseys, caps and other logo marketing items.
Of course, Snyder could save himself a stadium full of legal fees were he to do the right thing and change the name. And think of all the profits he could reap from a new generation of teamware. Not to mention some positive publicity for a change.
Follow Scott Martelle on Twitter @smartelle