U.S. Patent Office Bodyslams Redskins: Rules Nickname 'Disparaging'

  • Rick Chandler

As we remember from our Advanced NFL History class, the Washington Redskins were the last team to integrate: not allowing a black player onto its roster until 1961. And that was only after the federal government threatened to kick them out of their stadium, which was on federal land. And now we have this nickname and logo deal, which is causing great controversy, even in the U.S. Senate. Did the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office bring down the hammer that finally gets Daniel Snyder to change the name?

This morning that federal agency canceled six federal trademark registrations for the name “Washington Redskins”, ruling that the name is “disparaging to Native Americans” and thus in violation of federal trademark laws banning offensive or disparaging language.

But what does this mean, exactly? Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid apparently thinks it means that the name will be changed tomorrow: and that if you’ve got an account with Cafe Press, go ahead and order those Redskins shirts and start selling them online. (I’d hold off on that, as explained below).

“Every time they hear this name, it is a sad reminder of a long tradition of racism and bigotry,” Reid said. “A month or so ago, Daniel Snyder, the owner of the team, had some people come to Nevada and agreed to buy one of the Indian tribes a car if they would say nice things about the Redskins. They refused that.

“This is extremely important to Native Americans all over the country that they no longer use this name. It’s racist,” Reid added. “Daniel Snyder says it’s about tradition. I ask what tradition? A tradition of racism.”

Reid went on to note that in the wake of the patent office’s ruling, anyone is free to go out and make knockoff Washington football gear, which would certainly hurt the team’s revenue.

“Daniel Snyder may be the last person in the world to realize this, but it’s just a matter of time until he is forced to do the right thing and change the name,” Reid said.

While this is indeed another blow to Snyder and his insane quest to keep the Redskins name, it does not mean what you seem to think it means, to quote Inigo Montoya. The ruling doesn’t become official until Snyder and the Redskins exhaust all of their appeals in court. And even then, there’s this thing in the law called “common usage”, which means this: if the Redskins make the Super Bowl (laugh track), and you go out and make a bunch of shirts and hats with their logo on it and sell them outside the stadium, you could still be arrested and thrown in Sports Memorabilia Prison (current population: O.J. Simpson).

This has all happened before. The Patent and Trademark Office ruled against the Redskins name in 1999, only to have a federal court later reverse the ruling on a technicality. This time, however, that technicality has been fixed, say the attorneys involved in bringing the suit.

Here’s a Redskins timeline:

1932: Team is born as the Boston Braves, and plays in Braves Field, Boston, MA.

1933: Team moves to Fenway Park, changing name to Boston Redskins.

1937: Move to Washington D.C., becoming the Washington Redskins. They win the NFL East for the second year in a row and the NFL Championship Game vs. the Chicago Bears.

1938: The wife of owner George Preston Marshall writes the Redskins’ fight song. WTOP: The song originally contained racial epithets. For instance, the second stanza suggested the team “scalp” their opponents.

1940: Redskins play the Bears again for the NFL title — this time losing 73-0. That’s still the most lopsided loss in NFL history.

1940: Earlier that season, team captain Turk Edwards injured himself during the coin toss prior to a game against the NY Giants. He was lost for the season.

1950: Redskins become first NFL team to televise all of their games.

1961: Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall orders Redskins owner George Preston Marshall to integrate his team — the Redskins being the only NFL squad without a black player. (The team played in D.C. Stadium, which was on land overseen by the Dept. of the Interior). It is the first time the federal government attempts to desegregate a professional sports team.

1962: Running back Bobby Mitchell, guard John Nisby and fullback Ron Hatcher are signed — the Redskins’ first black players. Hatcher, from Michigan State, is the first black player drafted by the Redskins.

1992: Native American group sues the league to remove the Redskins name, citing statutes preventing registration of disparaging terms.

1999: The Trademark Trial and Appeal Board rule in favor of the petition and cancel the trademarks. Decision is appealed.

2002: Poll commissioned by Sports Illustrated finds that 75 percent of Native Americans surveyed have no objection to the Redskins name.

2005: D.C. Court of Appeals reverse the trademark cancellation. U.S. Supreme Court declines to hear Native American group’s appeal.