Unprecedented pressure on the Washington NFL team to change its name reached a crescendo today when the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board canceled six federal trademark registrations owned by the team, ruling that the term "Redskins" was disparaging to "a substantial composite" of American Indians when the marks were granted between 1967 and 1990.
The 2-1 decision by the board does not mean the Washington team must stop using the name but gives opponents of the name another opening to hammer home their contention that the term is a despicable racial slur. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said on the Senate floor that "the handwriting is on the wall" and the team's name will change some day.
The team's attorneys said the team will appeal. The team prevailed on appeal in an earlier iteration of the case.
"We are confident we will prevail once again, and that the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board's divided ruling will be overturned on appeal," team attorney Robert Raskopf said in a statement. "This case is no different than an earlier case, where the Board cancelled the Redskins' trademark registrations, and where a federal district court disagreed and reversed the Board."
The team issued a copy of its attorney's statement and did not immediately offer any other reaction. NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said by email: "We do not have anything further."
"Any effort by Mr. Snyder to appeal this ruling can only be viewed as a bigoted attempt to continue to profit from this racist team name at the expense of the dignity of Native Americans," Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) said in a statement.
The Washington team retains its federal trademark rights pending appeal. And even if the club loses on appeal, it can continue to use the name, as it has for more than 80 years. But without federal trademark protection, others could potentially use the team's name and logos to sell merchandise with impunity, although owners of unregistered marks can still try to protect them through state statutes or common law. The team has two months to file the appeal.
The TTAB, an independent administrative tribunal within the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, ruled that by a preponderance of the evidence petitioners had proved the term was disparaging to Native Americans when the six marks were registered
"We decide, based on the evidence properly before us, that these registrations must be canceled because they were disparaging to Native Americans at the respective times they were registered," the opinion says.
"I am extremely happy that the TTAB ruled in our favor," named petitioner Amanda Blackhorse said in a statement. "It is a great victory for Native Americans and for all Americans."
The Washington Redskins NFL team have had six of their patents revoked by the U.S. Patent Office in a rare move. VPC
When Washington team owner Daniel Snyder told USA TODAY Sports in May 2013 that he would never change his team's name — "NEVER, you can use caps" — the specific question he was answering was whether he would consider changing the name should his team lose its federal trademark protection.
Pressure to change the name has only intensified since. The Oneida Indian Nation launched a well-financed "Change the Mascot" campaign a month after Snyder's all-caps comment. Critics who've suggested Snyder should at least consider a name change have ranged from President Obama to 50 U.S. Senators to several of the team's former players. Today's ruling will amp up that pressure, even if from a legal standpoint little changes pending appeal.
Oneida Indian Nation Representative Ray Halbritter and National Congress of American Indians executive director Jackie Pata said in a joint statement: "If the most basic sense of morality, decency and civility has not yet convinced the Washington team and the NFL to stop using this hateful slur, then hopefully today's patent ruling will, if only because it imperils the ability of the team's billionaire owner to keep profiting off the denigration and dehumanization of Native Americans."
Suzan Shown Harjo was lead petitioner in the original trademark case, which began in 1992. The TTAB canceled the team's trademarks in 1999, just as it did today, but the team won Harjo v. Pro Football Inc. on appeal in 2003 in part because the district court ruled that the plaintiffs had waited too long to file their suit.
Harjo organized a second suit, with younger plaintiffs, including Blackhorse, in 2006. The original case did not end until the Supreme Court declined to hear it in 2009. Blackhorse v. Pro Football Inc. went active at that point and a 90-minute hearing was heard before the trademark board on March 7, 2013. The board took more than a year to come to today's ruling.
"We filed our petition eight years ago and it has been a tough battle ever since," Blackhorse said. "I hope this ruling brings us a step closer to that inevitable day when the name of the Washington football team will be changed."
Jesse Witten, lead attorney for the plaintiffs, said in a statement that the board "agreed with our clients that the team's name and trademarks disparage Native Americans. The Board ruled that the Trademark Office should never have registered these trademarks in the first place."
The five Native American petitioners from four tribes are Blackhorse, Marcus Briggs-Cloud, Philip Gover, Jillian Pappan and Courtney Tsotigh.
"The team's name is racist and derogatory," Blackhorse said . "I've said it before and I will say it again — if people wouldn't dare call a Native American a 'redskin' because they know it is offensive, how can an NFL football team have this name?"