The Washington Redskins have successfully appealed a 1999 federal ruling that stripped the franchise of its trademark protection.
U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly on Tuesday overturned a decision by a panel of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, finding there was insufficient evidence to support claims that the team’s nickname and its Indian head logo demean American Indians.
The stakes for the Redskins were significant: The franchise stood to lose as much as $5 million in merchandising revenue each year had it lost the appeal. More importantly, it would have lost control of one of the most well-known brand names in professional sports.
The Redskins retained the exclusive use of the nickname and logo during the four-year appeal process.
“We feel completely vindicated,” said Robert Raskopf, the New York attorney representing Pro-Football Inc., the parent organization of the Redskins. “What this ruling says is what we’ve been saying all along: that these claims were not supported and would not withstand this kind of legal scrutiny.”
The case was brought forward in 1992 by a group of seven American Indians, including Cheyenne activist and District resident Suzan Shown Harjo.
The Trademark Trial and Appeal Board seven years later granted the group’s petition to cancel the Redskins’ trademark protection as a violation of the Lanham Act, which prohibits the registration of names considered “disparaging, scandalous, contemptuous or disreputable.”
The group’s claims fell apart on two fronts, Judge Kollar-Kotelly ruled. First, the evidence presented by the group did not clearly prove “a substantial composite” of American Indians would view the club’s nickname as disparaging.
The group had offered as evidence the results of a 1996 opinion survey of about 300 American Indians that found that a majority considered the term “redskin” offensive.
Judge Kollar-Kotelly found that survey to be not timely enough and said the board made a mistake in extrapolating the results of that poll to the American Indian population as a whole.
“The board premised its disparagement conclusion on a paucity of actual findings of fact that were linked together through inferential arguments that had no basis in the record,” Judge Kollar-Kotelly wrote.
Perhaps more damaging, the group waited 25 years after the Redskins first registered their nickname and logo to file suit.
“By waiting so long to exercise their rights, [the American Indians] make it difficult for any fact-finder to affirmatively state that in 1967 the trademarks were disparaging,” Judge Kollar-Kotelly wrote.
The group is considering an appeal.
“This is obviously a disappointment,” said Michael Lindsay, attorney for the group. “We thought the unanimous decision of the [trademark] board really got this right. This is really no different than using the n-word to refer to African-Americans. Regardless of how the team says it’s treated Native Americans, this is still a racial epithet.”
Judge Kollar-Kotelly did not render a decision on whether the name “Redskins” is offensive. Rather, the ruling simply speaks to the group’s lack of evidence and the “legal sufficiency” of the trademark board’s decision.
The franchise originally was located in Boston and was called the Braves. George Preston Marshall purchased the team in 1932 and soon after changed the nickname to Redskins in honor of the team’s coach, William “Lone Star” Dietz, an American Indian. The team moved to Washington in 1937 and was renamed the Washington Redskins.
The Redskins still could have used have used the nickname — and they almost certainly would have, at least in the short term — had they lost the appeal.
But without federal trademark protection, anybody wishing to produce T-shirts, hats and other merchandise bearing the word “Redskins” could have done so.
Club owner Dan Snyder has long argued, as did predecessor Jack Kent Cooke, that “Redskins” is meant as a term of honor and steadfastly has refused to consider numerous formal and informal petitions to change the name.