Owner With His Head In the Sand?: Redskins Name Controversy Returns

“Old enough now to change your name.  When so many love you is it the same?”  Cowgirl In The Sand by Neil Young

Dan Snyder, owner of the Washington Redskins, (the capital’s storied NFL franchise), is no trademark neophyte.  An entrepreneur since his college days, Snyder has lifted the Redskins franchise to become one of the most valuable teams in sports.  Snyder reaps a fortune selling jerseys and other merchandise emblazoned with the REDSKINS name and logo–a profile of a Native American man. 

So with these invaluable trademarks fueling the engine of his success, it’s no surprise that Snyder waited until  all of Washington’s trademark professionals  flocked to arch rival Dallas before opening the latest chapter in the ongoing controversy over the REDSKINS name.  While lawyers from private practice and the USPTO were convening convivially in the shadow of Jerry’s Jones’ opulent new Texas stadium, Snyder defiantly declared to USA TODAY–“We will NEVER change the Redskins name.” 

Long simmering charges that the name is racist and disparaging to Native Americans bounce off Snyder like raindrops beading off a freshly waxed car.   He insists that the name only refers to his football team, and has lost any disparaging or barbaric connotations it once may have had.  And public opinion polls are like the buffet table at the Club Level of Fed EX Field–there is something for everyone, with surveys supporting each sides’ take on the name.

So Snyder would rather fight than switch. 

And the fight over the federal trademark registration for REDSKINS, once thought to be over, has returned.  Back in 1992, Native American groups and individuals petitioned the USPTO to cancel the REDSKINS trademark, alleging that the name is disparaging.  The Lanham Act, the federal trademark statute, forbids registration for disparaging marks.  The petitioners won round one, but ultimately lost on a procedural issue; the reviewing courts ruled that they had waited too long to bring their challenges. The Supreme Court declined to take up the issue.  Now, however, there’s a fresh case. This time the petitioners are younger and claim that they could not have acted sooner. 

The new case is again pending before the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB).  The TTAB, however, only has the power to cancel the REDSKINS federal trademark registration, not stop the team from using the name.  Losing the TTAB case would be a setback, and could affect the team’s rights in dealing with counterfeit merchandise, especially imports. But is wouldn’t be a mortal blow; it would not force the REDSKINS to change their name. 

For the petitioners and their supporter, the real issue goes beyond whether Snyder gets to keep his certificate of registration.  One can easily think of  several antiquated and pejorative  nicknames for ethnic or racial groups that would be offensive if used as the name of a sports franchise.  How is REDSKINS any different, opponents of the name ask?

Abe Pollin, the beloved civic leader and owner of city’s basketball franchise had no qualms about changing its name from the Bullets to the Wizards when he felt that naming a team after a lethal projective sent the wrong message in a city then plagued by gun violence.  And surely, measures could be taken to honor tradition and preserve the essence of the football team’s  brand while eliminating a term that some, perhaps even many, find offensive.   Who remembers that the KNICKS are really the Knickerbockers and the METS really the Metropolitans? What would be lost in the long run by similarly calling Snyder’s team simply the SKINS? 

Snyder, however, insists his conscience is clear and that the name will “NEVER” change.  It may be good business.  But whether it’s right is a question that trademark law can’t answer.

QUOTE OF THE DAY:  “People who work together will win, whether it be against complex football defenses, or the problems of modern society.”  Vince Lombardi

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