“Redskins” offensive? Court refuses to hear case over team name

The Carillon, Vol. 52, Issue 12 | Nov. 26 – Dec. 3, 2009

The U.S. Supreme Court recently ended a 17-year legal battle against the Washington Redskins by a group protesting the team’s name. The battle began in 1992 when seven activists, led by Native American rights advocate Suzan S. Harjo, challenged Redskins trademarks that were issued in 1967, on the grounds that the team name is so offensive that it does not deserve trademark protection. The Washington Post reports that the case ended when the Court declined to hear an appeal, after a lower court later ruled that the activists waited too long to litigate. The team maintains that the name “Redskins” is not racist, but honours a former coach who was Native American.

The prosecution initially won a decision in 1999 from the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board, which ruled that the name could be interpreted as offensive to Native Americans. However, after the team’s owner, Pro-Football Inc., appealed to federal court, U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly ruled that the prosecution had provided insufficient evidence that the name was so insulting that it could not be protected by a trademark. She also found that according to what is known as the doctrine of laches, which defends against claims that should have been made long ago, the activists waited too long to make their claim. The youngest member of the prosecution, Mateo Romero, waited until he was eight years past the age of majority before filing the complaint, during which time the Redskins had invested millions of dollars marketing the team.

According to Robert Raskopf, a lawyer for the Redskins since the suit was filed in 1992, former owner Jack Kent Cooke and current owner Daniel Snyder have never entertained the idea of changing the team name, despite protests and litigation. The name has stood since 1933, when the Boston Braves changed its name to the Boston Redskins, in honour of the team’s coach, Native American William “Lone Star” Dietz. The team later moved to Washington, where it has remained ever since. While the team name itself would not have been outlawed under a ruling for the prosecution, the team would have been hit hard in the pocketbook, as the Redskins’ merchandising revenue depends on trademark protection.

The team has steadfastly maintained that that the name should not be considered racist. According to recent polls of Native Americans, they may not be far off. In 2002, a Sports Illustrated poll revealed that “although Native American activists are virtually united in opposition to the use of Indian nicknames and mascots, the Native American population sees the issue far differently.” The poll indicated that 75 per cent of Native Americans were not offended by the Redskins name. A later poll by the University of Pennsylvania’s National Annenberg Election Survey revealed an even wider margin – 90 per cent of natives did not find the term offensive.

However, Native American activists have won ground on other sports controversies. In 2005, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) banned the use of Native American mascots by sports teams in all post-season tournaments, at the urging of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI). According to the NCAI, more than 100 colleges and universities used such mascots, which they argued were “inaccurate, unauthentic representations … and perpetuate[d] racial and cultural stereotypes.”

While this legal battle against the Redskins has been lost, a new group of activists has filed a similar suit in the hopes that they may be able to overcome the legal setbacks that prevented the first case from moving forward. However, for the time being, it seems that the Washington Redskins are here to stay.

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