Washington Redskins Lose Their Trademark

By on June 19, 2014

As reported in the Washington Post, the Washington Redskins’ federal trademark registration has been cancelled as the United States Patent and Trademark Office considered its racist connotations are not appropriate. This comes after the long struggle of a group of 5 Native Americans who filed with the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board to remove the trademark. This is a step in the right direction in an increasingly politicized debate over the name of the Washington football franchise. The ruling does not force a name change but it does complicate the franchise’s revenue gained through merchandise, as anyone would be able to sell Washington Redskin merchandise.

The issue has become increasingly public as during the NBA Finals the California-based Tocha Dene Wintun Nation aired a powerful ad promoting the issue that garnered significant attention to an issue that has been percolated for many years. The name of the franchise has also been politicized as a group of 50 US senators have taken up the cause. Public and political opinion may be one thing but Redskins owner Dan Snyder has at the very least been consistent in his refusal to change the name. Snyder stated in an interview that he would NEVER (his recommendation to use capitals) change the team’s name and continues to claim that the name honours Native Americans, despite the consistent disagreement from Native Americans themselves.

This landmark ruling also comes after a Baxter Holmes article in Esquire delved into the origins of the term redskin and arrived at the unsettling conclusion that the term dates back to when governments actively supported the genocide of Native Americans through such measures as placing a bounty on their heads. The 1755 Phips Proclamation described the pay scale for specific types of heads of Native Americans up to 50 pounds for an adult male and these heads were referred to as “redskins”. While their remains some debate around the original meaning of the word, few debate its discriminatory nature.

This controversy is also gaining momentum because of the recent situation with the LA Clippers and their owner Donald Sterling’s racist remarks. NBA commissioner Adam Silver acted swiftly to exercise all his available power to take action on Sterling and NFL commissioner Roger Godell should build off this precedent and require a name change. Godell has in the past defended the name as a “unifying force that stands for strength, courage, pride and respect”, but even he must take heed of the rising outcry for change. Similar to the NBA’s situation with Donald Sterling, what might get Godell’s attention is unfortunately not the inherent discriminatory nature of the issue, but how it will affect the bottom line and the NFLs pocketbooks. An underestimated aspect of the Sterling saga was that almost all of the Clippers sponsors pulled their advertising after the Sterling comments went public, it became bad for business. Similarly if the Washington Redskins appeal doesn’t go through, the loss of the trademark will have a similar effect on NFL pocket books and Godell may start to feel the pressure not only from the public and politicians, but from the other NFL owners.

Where to go from here? Snyder has made it clear that he has no intentions to change the name and the protest required to make him do so would be unlikely. Redskins’ fans could boycott the games but this is unlikely considering they haven’t done so up to this point. Face of the franchise quarterback Robert Griffin III could take a stand and demand a name change, although few professional athletes like to politicize themselves nowadays. However, it was heavily rumoured that if Silver did not act as fervently as he did with Sterling, NBA players were prepared to refuse to play the rest of the playoffs (the threat of this alone may have been enough to influence the strict penalties). It will likely take the NFL assuming its appropriate leadership role and stepping in and forcing a name change. It will be interesting to see how this unfolds, here’s hoping the 2015 season kicks off with the Dallas Cowboys vs. the Washington Generals (feel free to comment your ideas for a new name).

About Joshua Murray

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