WASHINGTON — A federal trademark board ruled Wednesday that the Washington Redskins nickname is “disparaging of Native Americans” and that the team’s trademark protections should be canceled, a decision that applies new financial and political pressure on the team to change its name.
The 2-1 ruling from the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board came in a case that has been working its way through legal channels for more than two decades. It doesn’t force the team to abandon the name, but it comes at a time of increasing criticism of team owner Dan Snyder from political, religious and sports figures who say it’s time for a change.
The Redskins quickly announced that they will appeal, and the cancellation for trademark protections will be on hold while the matter makes its way through the courts. That process could take years.
It was the second time the board had issued an opinion on the case. A similar ruling from 1999 was overturned on a technicality in 2003.
“We’ve seen this story before,” Redskins attorney Bob Raskopf said. “And just like last time, today’s ruling will have no effect at all on the team’s ownership of and right to use the Redskins name and logo. We are confident we will prevail once again.”
The ruling involves six uses of the “Redskins” name trademarked by the team from 1967 to 1990. If it stands, it would mean the team can continue to use the name, but it would lose a significant portion of its ability to protect the financial interests connected to it. If others printed the name on sweatshirts or other apparel without permission, it would become more cumbersome to go after such groups.
Courts overturned the board’s previous ruling in part because the plaintiffs waited too long to voice their opposition after the original trademarks were issued. The case was relaunched in 2006 by a younger group of Native Americans who had recently become adults and therefore would not have able to file a case earlier. The hearing was held in March of last year.
The chorus of critics against the use of the name has grown over the past year.
On Saturday, a major sector of the United Church of Christ voted to urge its 40,000 members to boycott the Redskins. Half of the U.S. Senate recently wrote letters to the NFL urging a change, one of the letters stating that “racism and bigotry have no place in professional sports.” D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray suggested Wednesday the name will almost certainly have to change if the team ever wants to build a new stadium in the city.
Snyder, who has vowed repeatedly never to change the name, declined comment as he walked off the field after a minicamp practice Wednesday. Redskins players have mostly avoided the topic, aware of a potential conflict because they are employed by the team.
“Our job as players is to focus on what we can on this field day-in and day-out and let the legal people take care of that stuff,” quarterback Robert Griffin III said after practice. “And when it’s the right time, then we can voice whatever it is we know about the situation.”
The Redskins have responded to critics by creating an Original Americans Foundation to give financial support to Native American tribes. Suzan Shown Harjo, a lead figure in the trademark case, called the foundation “somewhere between a PR assault and bribery.”
Supporters of a name change quickly hailed the decision.
“Daniel Snyder may be the last person in the world to realize this,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said on the Senate floor, “but it is just a matter of time until he is forced to do the right thing.”