Court hears challenge to Redskins name

March 7, 2013

Washington Redskins General Manager Bruce Allen attended his first trademark hearing Thursday. He heard attorneys and judges fuss over dictionaries, surveys and the actions of offended 18-year-olds while using such terms as “hearsay exception” and “Chevron deference,” all in a debate over the team’s nickname.

“There was one reference to a delay-of-game penalty,” Allen said, “which was the football part that I understood.”

As the 90-minute hearing in Alexandria before three judges on the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board showed, the case against the team is not as simple as declaring that the word “redskins” is a slur and therefore shouldn’t have federal trademark protection. The group of five Native American petitioners has to show that the name “Washington Redskins” was disparaging to a significant population of American Indians when the team was granted the trademarks from 1967 to 1990.

There won’t be a resolution a soon. Attorneys said they expect the judges to take as long as a year to issue a ruling, and the Redskins are sure to appeal if it doesn’t go their way. A similar case, ultimately won by the team, was filed in 1992 and needed 17 years to go through the legal system before the Supreme Court declined to intervene.

The Redskins lost this round the first time. The board stripped the club of its trademark protection in 1999, but the ruling was overturned on appeal in part because the courts decided that the plaintiffs were too old and had thus waited too long to make their complaint.

The new case was filed in 2006 by a group of five Native Americans ages 18 to 24, but even that isn’t good enough for Redskins attorney Robert Raskopf. He told the judges that the 18-year-olds waited nearly a year to join the fray and “should’ve been ready to file on Day One” upon turning 18 if they were truly offended.

The judges didn’t seem impressed by that argument.

“One year is too much?” judge Peter Cataldo asked with a hint of incredulity.

But the judges also gave the Native Americans’ attorney a grilling, asking him to state the best evidence for his case and stopping him frequently as he gave his answers.

Attorney Jesse Witten cited opposition to the name by the National Congress of American Indians — although there was some uncertainty as to how many tribes the NCAI represented at the time — and the overall use of the word “redskin” in the public realm, leading both sides to cite opinion polls and the way the word is defined in scores of decades-old dictionaries.

The Redskins maintain that the name honors Native Americans and that they don’t mean to offend anybody. But two judges questioned that line of thinking. Cataldo asked if the team could have called itself the “Washington n-word” with nothing but honorable intentions and still be subject to scrutiny.

— Associated Press

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