As Redskins’ struggles drag on, so does court challenge to name

Courtland Milloy
Columnist January 1, 2012

Back in 1992, Washington reigned as Super Bowl champs with high hopes for two in a row under coach Joe Gibbs. That year, a Native American resident of the District, Suzan Harjo, became the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit seeking to change the team’s disparaging name: Redskins.

As the legal battle over the name enters its 20th year, let’s review some highlights of a struggle in which moral victories by the plaintiffs often coincided with demoralizing losses by the team on the field — including dashed hopes of winning another Super Bowl.

* * *

1992: The American Jewish Committee voices support for the lawsuit. The term “redskins” is not an honorific to Native Americans, as Washington claims; it’s an insult, says the AJC. Seven years later, when communications executive Daniel Synder buys the team, Native Americans assume that he’ll be more sympathetic than the previous owner because he is Jewish. They are sorely mistaken.

On the gridiron, Gibbs takes the team to the NFC divisional playoffs (January 1993) but loses to the San Francisco 49ers. After 12 seasons and three Super Bowl wins, Gibbs retires. It is the end of times for Washington football.

* * *

1993: Webster’s Third New International Dictionary Unabridged (3rd ed., Merriam-Webster, 1993) defines the team name as “taken to be offensive.” This contrasts with a Washington Post-ABC News poll the previous year in which 89 percent of respondents said they favor keeping the team’s name because “the name is not intended to be offensive.”

Defensive coordinator Richie Petitbon replaces Gibbs as head coach and is promptly fired after losing 12 of the season’s 16 games.

* * *

1994: The InterFaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington joins the call for a name change.

Washington hires Norv Turner as head coach and the team loses 13 of 16 games.

* * *

1995-99: The lawsuit, Harjo et al v. Pro-Football Inc., finally gets a hearing before the U.S. Trademark Trial and Appeal Board. A three-judge panel rules that the team name and logo violate the Lanham Act prohibition on any trademark that “consists or comprises . . . matter which may disparage . . . persons, living or dead . . . or bring them into contempt, or disrepute.”

Washington takes the case to the U.S. Court of Appeals, which eventually overturns the trial board’s ruling, saying that Harjo and the others had waited too long to file the lawsuit. The plaintiffs later petition the U.S. Supreme Court to reverse that decision, but the high court refuses to take the case.

Snyder purchases the Washington team in 1999, along with the newly built Jack Kent Cooke Stadium in Landover. He immediately removes the former team owner’s name from the arena and sells the naming rights to Federal Express for an estimated $250 million. Friends of Cooke, who had died of a heart attack two years earlier, pitch a fit. But Snyder calms them by declaring that, out of respect for tradition, he will never give in to the demands of the Native Americans.

Then again, they don’t have millions to spend on naming rights.

* * *

2000-04: Hundreds of high schools and universities stop using Native American imagery as sports logos and mascots. As African Americans press their fight to change the Virginia state song, “Carry Me Back to Ole Virginny,” which makes references to “darkies” and “massas,” Native Americans hope that more of Washington’s black fans will join in solidarity with their struggle.

Hope springs eternal.

Turner takes Washington to the NFC divisional playoffs against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. With less than two minutes to go, the team is poised to take the lead with a field goal when — oops! — the snap is botched and the game is lost, 14-13.

Turner is fired in the middle of the following season and Terry Robiskie takes over as interim coach for the last three games. Marty Schottenheimer replaces him and, a year later, he is canned for Steve Spurrier, who is eventually let go to make way for the return of Joe Gibbs.

* * *

2005-10: The American Psychological Association supports the Native Americans’ case with research showing the corrosive effects of racial stereotyping on children. But after a dejected Gibbs retires in 2008, it is the Washington fan who seems to need psychological help the most. It’s as if spiritual war is being waged against the team, which soon becomes one of the most dispirited franchises in the NFL.

By the time Jim Zorn is hired and fired as head coach and Mike Shanahan arrives to take his place, Washington will have burned through eight head coaches since 1992. The team has also started 21 quarterbacks.

About the only thing that hasn’t changed through all that is the team’s reputation as losers — and that cursed name.

* * *

2011: Harjo tells the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs: “The term ‘redskins’ is the most vile and offensive term used to describe Native Americans. It is most disturbing to the overwhelming majority of Native Americans throughout the country that the professional football team in the nation’s capital uses a team name that demeans us.”

* * *

2012: Another lawsuit to get rid of the team name, Blackhorse et al v. Pro-Football Inc., will be working its way through the courts, this one from a younger group of Native Americans who cannot be said to have “waited too long to file.”

But they have already waited too long for justice.

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