The USPTO isn’t the only hypocrite in this debate. Politicians have been falling over themselves to weigh in on the controversy
by Jordan Kobritz
You’ve got to hand it to Washington Redskins’ owner Dan Snyder. In the face of overwhelming odds, he remains adamant that he will never change his team’s name.
The latest blow against the nickname “Redskins” came from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) when a panel of three judges voted to cancel six of the team’s trademarks. According to the majority in the 2-1 decision, the trademark registrations “…must be canceled because they were disparaging to Native Americans at the respective times they were registered.” That statement smacks of hypocrisy. If the marks were disparaging at the time they were registered, why were the team’s applications approved in the first place?
In fairness to the USPTO, this isn’t the first time the agency voted to cancel Washington’s trademarks. They reached a similar conclusion in 1999, although that decision was overturned by the courts four years later. Whether that happens again – Snyder has vowed to appeal the latest ruling – remains to be seen. However, even if the team were to lose on appeal, the loss of federal trademarks would be more symbolic than substantive. The Redskins’ trademarks could still be legally protected under common law, meaning the team would be able to pursue legal action against anyone who used the logos or name without permission. So consider yourself forewarned: Making knockoff hats or jerseys may cost you more in legal fees than you’ll earn in profits.
The USPTO isn’t the only hypocrite in this debate. Politicians have been falling over themselves to weigh in on the controversy. In May, fifty U.S. senators, all Democrats, signed a letter to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell urging him to force the Redskins to change their name. Many of the same senators who signed the petition were responsible for decades of government neglect in administering Indian Trust Funds. After repeated attempts to reach a negotiated settlement, in 1999 a group of Native Americans brought a class action lawsuit against the Department of the Interior for an accounting of lost funds, which they estimated to be as much as $176 billion. The suit was settled in 2009 for $3.4 billion.
President Obama couldn’t resist giving Snyder free advice when he said last fall, “If I were the owner of the team and I knew that there was a name of my team – even if it had a storied history – that was offending a sizeable group of people, I’d think about changing it.” So what constitutes a “sizeable group?” Poll after poll has concluded that a majority of Native Americans – in some cases 90% – are not offended by the team’s name. The nickname is even being used by a number of reservation athletic teams.
The group behind the challenge to the Redskins’ trademarks has also sued the team in an effort to convince it to change its name. Their next target is the Cleveland Indians, with litigation expected to commence later this month. They claim the Indians’ name and logos are demeaning to Native Americans.
What’s next, PETA declaring that we can’t name teams after animals? Would that eliminate nicknames such as Bobcats, Tigers, and Lions? What if a group of Irish Americans complains about Notre Dame’s nickname, the Fighting Irish? Should the school be pressured to change it? Several pundits have suggested that Snyder change the team name to the Reds. But that was once a reference to communists. If we offend the few remaining communists in this country, is that too many?
The nickname Redskins was never intended to demean Native Americans. It was adopted more than 80 years ago by then team owner George Preston Marshall to honor the heritage of the team’s coach, Lone Star Dietz, who maintained that he was of Indian descent. Although that claim has long been refuted, the motivation behind the nickname has never been disputed.
For the nation’s football team, the handwriting is on the wall. Snyder will do an about face when retaining the name Redskins affects the team’s – and given the level of revenue sharing in the NFL, the league’s – pocketbook. It’s only a matter of when, not if, the combined pressure from the general public, legal system, league, sponsors, fans and politicos accomplishes that. When that day comes, the name will change but the hypocrisy will continue.
Jordan Kobritz is a former attorney, CPA, and Minor League Baseball team owner. He is a Professor in the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland and maintains the blog: http://sportsbeyondthelines.com Jordan can be reached at email@example.com.© Copyright 2014 Tanna Bk, All rights Reserved. Written For: Tinytown Unleashed