Board rules for dictionary over Redskins’ feeble attempts to defend team name

Robert McCartney
Columnist June 18

My favorite part of the potent new legal ruling Wednesday against the name of Washington’s football team came when the judges rejected the team’s lame efforts to somehow discredit the dictionary.

The team had recruited a couple of prominent word experts to do its dirty work to defend a racial slur.

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

One, David Barnhart, who helped edit the Thorndike-Barnhart dictionaries for schools, argued that since 1966, definitions of the R-word have been “erratic at worst and inconsistent at best.”

He said only two dictionaries — just two! — labeled the word as “disparaging.”

Hold on, said the federal trademark board. What about all the dictionaries that called it “offensive” or “contemptuous”? Don’t they count?

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has canceled the Washington Redskins’ trademark. Federal trademark law does not permit registration of trademarks that "may disparage" individuals or groups. Here's a look at the Redskins' logo and team imagery throughout the years. (Tom LeGro and Natalie Jennings/The Washington Post)

“We disagree that the labeling is erratic and inconsistent,” the judges said. “Rather it shows a clear trend beginning in 1966 to label this term as offensive, and by 1986 the dictionaries are unanimous.”

Did you catch that, Dan Snyder? “Unanimous.”

And that’s according to a survey of dictionaries done by Barnhart himself.

The vocabulary lesson highlighted the true importance of the ruling. It’s mostly symbolic, for now, but the symbolism packs a sizable wallop.

The decision to cancel the team’s trademark registration has no immediate practical effect. The team said it would appeal, and the appeals are likely to take years.

But the usually obscure administrative law judges of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office put Snyder and the National Football League on the defensive in the vital arena of public relations.

By a 2 to 1 ruling, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board provided a thoughtful, detailed, authoritative repudiation of all the main arguments that Snyder and the NFL have used to defend the name.

It did so after hearing the NFL’s high-priced lawyers make their best case in a public hearing. It studied the issue for 15 months. It wrote a 99-page opinion (plus 78 pages of appendixes) carefully weighing the pros and cons.

After “due caution” and “a most careful study of all the facts,” as required by law, the panel delivered a resounding rebuff.

Snyder: We don’t mean to insult American Indians. Our intent is to honor them.

Judges: Your “alleged honorable intent” is irrelevant. What matters is what Native Americans think about the word.

Snyder: The word has a separate and independent meaning, which isn’t offensive, when it’s used to describe the football team.

Judges: “There is no case in our review where a term found to be a racial slur in general was found not to be disparaging when used in the context of specific services.”

Snyder: Opponents only represent a handful of activists expressing individual opinions.

Judges: National American Indian organizations have consistently opposed the name since the late 1960s. “The record establishes that, at a minimum, approximately thirty percent of Native Americans found the term . . . disparaging.”

It’s too much to hope that this will affect Snyder. He seems too stubborn and uncaring to budge.

But it could shake the NFL’s complacency. The publicity over this ruling will further swell public criticism of the team’s name, which has gained traction nationwide.

The ruling’s one bright spot for the team was the dissenting opinion from one of the three judges. When the trademark panel ruled against the R-word in 1999 in a virtually identical case, it did so unanimously.

The dissent Wednesday gave the team hope that the ruling would be overturned on appeal. That happened initially with the 1999 decision, before a second appeal resulted in the whole case being thrown out on a technicality.

Snyder and his friends shouldn’t get their hopes up. The judges in the majority, well aware of the risk of being overturned, wrote a tighter opinion this time.

“They were more careful about talking about the same facts,” said Christine Haight Farley, a trademark law professor at American University. “I think the overwhelming record and lots of circumstantial evidence suggest that the majority got it right.”

Furthermore, even the dissenting judge made a point of saying he was not defending the team’s name as inoffensive.

Instead, he merely thought there wasn’t enough evidence to prove Native Americans viewed it as disparaging when the trademarks were registered between 1967 and 1990.

Dictionaries, American Indian groups and now a board of sober judges. They all reach the same conclusion. When will it sway Snyder and the NFL?

I discuss local issues Friday at 8:50 a.m. on WAMU (88.5 FM). For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.

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