The Washington Redskins football franchise can keep its trademark name and logo because a group of activists did not provide enough evidence that the team’s moniker was disparaging to Native Americans, a judge ruled yesterday.
U .S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly threw out a federal board’s 1999 decision to cancel six highly lucrative Redskins trademarks. She said she was not opining on whether the word “redskin” was insulting or not but concluded that the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s board had relied upon partial, dated and irrelevant evidence submitted by the activists.
The judge also said Native Americans had little legal grounds to complain because they waited 25 years after the first Redskins trademark was registered to formally object to the team’s name and images.
The ruling protects millions of dollars in sales of Redskins paraphernalia. With a federal registration for Redskins trademarks, team owner Daniel M. Snyder continues to hold exclusive rights to use the team name and logo on T-shirts, caps and other merchandise worth an estimated $5 million a year.
The National Football League franchise had retained its trademark protections while the legal battle was pending. Teams have invested a small fortune in legal fees to protect their trademarks because the trademarks allow them to quickly stop entrepreneurs from selling knock-off clothing and trinkets.
Snyder, who had vowed that he would take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary, said he was pleased with the ruling. “This team has always treated its trademarks with the utmost respect,” Snyder said, “and our fans worldwide understand and respect the tradition of the Washington Redskins.”
The activists and their attorneys said they are not giving up. Vernon Bellecourt, president of the American Indian Movement’s National Coalition on Racism in Sports and Media, said the decision refuels the fight to challenge the Redskins name. The activists will appeal or find another way to get the name changed, he said.
“Judge Kollar-Kotelly brings a new low to the word ‘ignorance,’ “ Bellecourt said, noting that the dictionary lists “redskin” as an example under the definition of “slur.”
Michael Lindsay, an attorney for the activists, said the case “is really the difference between calling a team the Washington African Americans and calling them the Washington N-Word. And we believe we’ve proved that, and we will prevail at some later stage.”
Kollar-Kotelly framed her 83-page opinion on legal and procedural grounds, purposely avoiding the emotional debates over team names and symbols that also have arisen in Cleveland and Atlanta.
“This opinion should not be read as making any statement on the appropriateness of Native American imagery for team names,” the judge wrote.
The legal battle began 11 years ago, when a group of seven Native Americans, led by Cheyenne activist and District resident Suzan Shown Harjo, argued that the team’s name and feather-wearing Indian mascot trivialized a tragic time when Indians were victims of genocide and forced off their land by settlers and U.S. soldiers. Hoping to get the team to change its name by making it too costly to keep, Harjo filed a complaint with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in 1992. That agency’s Trial Trademark and Appeal Board sided with her in 1999. Harjo’s group had pointed to a 1946 federal law that prohibits the government from registering a trademark that disparages any race, religion or other group.
Harjo could not be located for comment yesterday.
Pro-Football Inc., the corporation that owns the Redskins, appealed the trademark panel’s decision in U.S. District Court. Its attorneys said that the “difficult relations” between Anglo-Americans and Native Americans were certainly unfortunate. But, they argued, in the 21st century, the beloved hometown team has changed the connotation of the word “redskins” to one that is “powerfully positive” -- associated more with touchdowns than tomahawks.
Since he bought the franchise in 1999, Snyder has consistently said that he will not change the team’s name.
In her ruling yesterday, Kollar-Kotelly said the trademark board had one legal question to consider: could the word “redskin,” used with the popular football franchise since 1933, disparage a “substantial composite” of Native Americans at the time the first Redskins trademark was registered in 1967? But the judge said the trademark board relied on faulty evidence, including news articles saying Redskins managers or players intended to “scalp” opponents or seek “revenge on the warpath,” and videotapes of fans in costumes depicting Native Americans as “savages and buffoons.”
“At best, this evidence demonstrates that Pro-Football’s fans and the media continue to equate the Washington Redskins with Native Americans and not always in a respectful manner,” she wrote.
Kollar-Kotelly also dismissed a 1996 survey of Native American attitudes that found the word “redskin” disparaged them as irrelevant, because it was too far removed from 1967 and did not relate to the football team.
Staff writers Thomas Heath and Mark A. Maske contributed to this report.