How many Indians must feel disparaged to strip ‘Redskins’ trademark protection?

Robert McCartney
Columnist March 9, 2013

Question: How many Native Americans have to feel disparaged by the name “Redskins” before the federal government strips the team of its trademark rights, thus costing owner Dan Snyder and the NFL millions of dollars?

Answer: A “substantial” share of Indians, but not necessarily a majority, need be offended to force a change. The courts haven’t clarified much beyond that.

Robert McCartney’s column on local issues appears Thursdays and Sundays in The Post’s Metro section. View Archive

That was one of the highlights gleaned Thursday at that rarest of events: a federal trademark hearing of sufficient public interest to attract TV news cameras.

In a small courtroom at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in Alexandria, Indian activists challenging “Redskins” squared off against the team and the National Football League in a new round of an old legal battle.

The K Street attorneys representing the Indians are working pro bono, forsaking their normal fees of $400 to $650 an hour to help a worthy cause. The Redskins’ New York attorneys, who typically charge even higher rates, are working for pay.

After watching three administrative law judges pepper both sides with questions for 90 minutes, I reached one firm conclusion: A trademark case is a lousy way to try to advance a moral principle.

The main benefit of this legal process is keeping the issue in the public eye, lest we forget the wrong done by naming a team with a racial insult.

Sure, it would be great if the federal government ruled for the Indians and thus went on the record saying the team name is denigrating.

But it’s going to take months to get a ruling, and years to complete the appeals. Even if he loses, Snyder wouldn’t necessarily have to change the name. It would just be harder for him to block competitors from selling Redskins paraphernalia and services.

Moreover, under trademark law, the decision won’t depend on what Native Americans think about the team name today.

Instead, the case turns on whether “a substantial composite” of Indians — which the judges said could be a minority — found the name disparaging when the “Redskins” trademarks were approved between 1967 and 1990.

Based on what I saw, it’s a challenge to prove that definitively. That’s partly because of the difficulty of establishing what several million people spread across the country believed two to four decades ago. In addition, the Indians’ public agitation against the word in that period was less organized and active than it is now.

For instance, the Indians point to a 1972 meeting at which a delegation of Native American leaders urged the Redskins’ owner, Edward Bennett Williams, to change the name. The group included the president of the National Congress of American Indians, the oldest and largest Native group.

But the team argues that the delegation represented only a handful of individuals. The congress didn’t formally vote as a body to condemn “Redskins” until 1993, or three years after the time period at issue.

What’s frustrating is that this whole procedure ignores what seems to be the undeniable fact that today, “a substantial composite” of Native Americans find the word disparaging.

For instance, dictionaries today routinely label “redskin” as often or usually offensive. Until the late 1960s, they typically identified it as a neutral term.

Fifty Indian organizations, in addition to the National Congress of American Indians, have now called for eliminating Native American names and mascots in sports.

The trademark office has implicitly recognized a shift in how “Redskins” is viewed. From 1996 to 2002, it rebuffed the team at least three times when it tried to register new brands using the word. In each case, examiners cited disparagement as the grounds for action.

In the media gaggle after the hearing, I asked Redskins General Manager Bruce Allen whether the name might have seemed okay when it was adopted in the 1930s but has now become offensive.

He dodged the question by making the irrelevant point that two Redskins games last season got some of the year’s highest television ratings. “It seems we’re actually more popular than we’ve ever been,” Allen said.

They can’t sidestep this forever. No matter what the judges eventually opine, two damning questions will linger.

Is it okay for a team to use a racial slur as its name?

And if not, what will it take to prove to the franchise that that’s exactly what it’s doing?

For previous Robert McCartney columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.

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