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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.