US Patent Office Cancels Trademark Protection for DC NFL Team’s Name

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dean bertoncelj /

June 18, 2014; USA Today

It looks like Dan Snyder’s faux Native American foundation may have some trouble with its name—and so might the Washington D.C. NFL franchise owned by Snyder. The U.S. Patent Office’s Trademark Trial and Appeal Board canceled six federal trademark registrations associated with the team’s use of a derogatory epithet for American Indians—“Redskins.”

This is not the first time that the Patent Office has been called upon on to cancel the racist trademark registrations of the team. Well-known activist Suzan Harjo along with six other Native Americans filed a petition to cancel the trademark registrations in 1992. That case has gone through multiple appeals and decisions and was awaiting a decision on another appeal when the current case was filed by six new Native American petitioners. The decision—and the dissent by the one of the three judges on the panel—should be essential reading for anyone concerned about institutional racism in the U.S. It is truly compelling reading, including the dissenting judge’s dismissal of the plaintiffs’ proffered evidence of the opposition of most Native Americans to the name as “hearsay.”

The cancellation of the trademarks doesn’t compel Snyder to change the name of the team, although that would be the wisest and most thoughtful move Snyder might make. However, wise and thoughtful haven’t been “trademarks,” so to speak, of the Snyder ownership history—witness the team’s #RedskinsPride twitter campaign aimed at Senator Harry Reid (D-NV), an unrelenting critic of the team’s racist name, which completely backfired against Snyder and his allies. Snyder’s creation of a foundation to provide support to Native Americans has hardly done anything but engender criticism at the notion that Snyder could buy the support of American Indians.

Snyder’s all-caps “NEVER” response to the idea of changing the team’s name actually responds in part to the loss of the trademark. Now lots of people might generate products with the Washington NFL franchise’s derogatory name and image—just like Snyder himself, focused more on revenues and profits than on the racist meaning of terminology. To see what this really means, look at the #ProudtoBe photographs of Native American leaders and the powerful and poignant television ad aired during the NBA finals, with its concluding words, “Native Americans call themselves many things. The one thing they don’t….” One has to be astounded at the steel heart demonstrated by Snyder after he sees, as he must, these public statements and yet still defends the team’s racist name.

USA Today cites Oneida Indian Nation Representative Ray Halbritter and National Congress of American Indians executive director Jackie Pata, who said in a joint statement, “If the most basic sense of morality, decency and civility has not yet convinced the Washington team and the NFL to stop using this hateful slur, then hopefully today’s patent ruling will, if only because it imperils the ability of the team’s billionaire owner to keep profiting off the denigration and dehumanization of Native Americans.”

After most previous public attacks on Snyder’s defense of institutionalized racism by his NFL team, the National Football League hierarchy has defended the Washington team owner with nonsensical statements about how the team name actually honors Native Americans. Interestingly, this time around, NFL spokesperson NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy in response to a request for comment told USA Today by email, “We do not have anything further.”  However, Snyder’s team promised to appeal this decision as it did the previous Harjo decision. 

Over its history, this nation has tried to prune the vestiges of racism from its institutions and vocabulary. That history has been troubled and contentious, and nothing can undo genocide like the Jackson administration’s “Trail of Tears” unleashed upon Native Americans by governments past. There is nothing, however, that can be said to justify the people today, whether Donald Sterling in Los Angeles or Daniel Snyder in the nation’s capitol, who maintain and perpetuate racism in our society, a racism from which they and others actually profit.—Rick Cohen

  • Terry C White

    In 1971 three “Indians” objected tot the dancing of the University of Nebraska Omaha mascot “Oampi” They wanted the name of the team changed. The ring leader pretended to be an Indian and hanged out at the reservation but was not an Indian. All other Indians who were asked liked the name. The university caved in and the mascot became the Mavericks.Do not cave in to these few nuts