By Dianne Hermann
Following years of controversy, the Washington Redskins football team is bowing to intense public pressure by considering a change to its name and team logo.
The legal dispute over the Redskins logo began in 1992 when a Minneapolis-based law firm petitioned the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) to cancel the team’s trademark registration. The lawsuit, filed on behalf of a client, claimed the trademark was not legal. It was based on the USPTO’s standard that trademarks cannot be “disparaging, scandalous, contemptuous, or disreputable.”
The USPTO canceled the federal registration of the Redskins trademark in 1999. The decision was made on the grounds that “the subject may disparage Native Americans and may bring them into contempt or disrepute.”
THE WASHINGTON REDSKINS APPEAL TRADEMARK RULING
The Washington Redskins owners subsequently appealed the decision to the District of Columbia court in Pro-Football v. Harjo. The district court reversed the USPTO decision in 2005, ruling that there was insufficient evidence of disparagement.
In a related case in 2014, Blackhorse v. Pro-Football, the USPTO’s Trial and Appeal Board voted to cancel six trademarks held by the team. They based their decision on the team name being disparaging to a “substantial composite of Native Americans.”
Shortly after that ruling the Washington Redskins filed an appeal. The ACLU filed an Amicus brief on behalf of the team. Although the ACLU found the team name repugnant, they asserted that the government should not decide what types of speech are forbidden.
The subsequent filings, rulings, and decisions are too complicated and lengthy to delineate here. Ultimately, the case ended up in the Supreme Court.
The Washington Redskins requested a review by the Supreme Court in 2017 over the constitutionality of banning a disparaging trademark. The Supreme Court’s impact on the Washington Redskins trademark name, however, was actually decided in an unrelated case.
An Asian-American rock band called The Slants was denied a trademark for their name by the USPTO because it might be seen as racist. This was based on their interpretation of the Lanham Act of 1946. Also known as the Trademark Act, this federal statute governs trademarks, service marks, and unfair competition.
The Lanham Act has been used to settle disputes when there might be a conflict over names that are similar, meant to deceive, or might cause confusion. It has also been used by the USPTO to decline requests when names are deemed questionable or potentially offensive.
In 2017, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Matal v. Tam (the band’s founder) that the Lanham Act violates the First Amendment’s Free Speech Clause.
This ruling meant that the USPTO could not force the Washington Redskins to remove their name and logo. To do so violated the team’s First Amendment rights. This team viewed this as a huge victory.
THE WASHINGTON REDSKINS FOOTBALL TEAM HISTORY
The Washington Redskins football team was founded as the Boston Braves in 1932. They changed their name to the Redskins in 1933. The team moved to Washington, DC in 1937, finally changing their name to the Washington Redskins.
The Washington Redskins football team now play their home games at FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland. FedEx told CNN Business this week that it had asked the team to change its name.
Tom Snyder, the team owner, issued a statement last Friday that the team would review the name change. He said they would take into account the “proud tradition and history of the franchise.” This is a major shift, considering Snyder told USA Today in 2013 that a name change would never happen.
WILL THE REDSKINS CHANGE THEIR TEAM NAME?
There have been calls for the Washington Redskins to change its name for decades. The team has staunchly resisted.
Fast forward to 2020. Fast forward to Black Lives Matter. And finally, fast forward to tearing down monuments that are deemed racist.
Last month, the team removed the name of the team’s founder from FedEx Field. They also removed his statue from Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium, the team’s former home in Washington, DC.
The team’s founder, George Preston Marshall, was opposed to integrating the NFL. He didn’t sign a black player to the team until 1962, 16 years after the NFL started signing black players.
The Washington Redskins recently released a statement, which said in part, “In light of recent events around our country and feedback from our community, the Washington Redskins are announcing the team will undergo a thorough review of the team’s name. This review formalizes the initial discussions the team has been having with the league in recent weeks.”
It’s not uncommon for a team to change its name when it move to another city. But now there is financial pressure from major team sponsors for a name change. Public pressure has been building up for decades.
Only time will tell if the Washington Redskins bow to the pressure and change the team name.
Image from: foxbaltimore.com