Shortly after the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office announced Wednesday that it was canceling the Washington Redskins’ trademark registration because the team name disparages Native Americans, team owner Dan Snyder waved off a reporter’s question about the decision and walked away. Snyder plans to appeal; even if he loses, he won’t be barred from using the Redskins name. But Snyder would be smart to take this as an opportunity. He is kidding himself if he thinks concerns about the continued use of an offensive name can be waved away as easily as a reporter’s question.
The 2-1 decision by the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board found that the name is “disparaging to Native Americans” and thus in violation of federal trademark law, which outlaws the registration of language that holds groups or individuals in contempt or disrepute. “The recognition that this racial designation based on skin color is disparaging to Native Americans” is demonstrated “by the near complete drop-off in usage of ‘redskins’ as a reference to Native Americans beginning in the 1960’s,” the board said.
Its decision would allow anyone to use the name and team logo on merchandise, thus reducing revenue to the Redskins and the National Football League. The cancellation of six trademarks granted between 1967 and 1990 is similar to a ruling issued in 1999 that the Redskins successfully challenged on the basis that the plaintiffs lacked standing. Perhaps the team will again prevail on appeal, as Redskins trademark attorney Bob Raskopf so confidently predicted in a statement Wednesday.
But the situation has changed even since 1999. More and more people and groups are recognizing the problem and speaking out, including the president of the United States and half of the U.S. Senate, which controls the tax breaks enjoyed by the NFL. The National Basketball Association’s swift action against Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling for his racist remarks has cast NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s ever-changing stance in a particularly unflattering light.
Snyder has argued that the name was intended to honor Native Americans. That record has been much disputed. What is increasingly beyond dispute, all the more after this decision, is that the name today is an insult. The common-sense proof: No person in his right mind would even think of using it to address a Native American. Even the patent board judge who dissented from Wednesday’s decision took pains to distance himself from the name, noting, “I am not suggesting that the term ‘redskins’ was not disparaging in 1967, 1974, 1978 and 1990… . Rather, my conclusion is that the evidence petitioners put forth fails to show that it was.”
Traditions matter, but times — and language — change. If Snyder declines to recognize as much, officials and other NFL owners must take action. They, too, are being harmed by this obdurate last stand.