ALEXANDRIA, Va. — Washington Redskins general manager Bruce Allen was attending his first trademark hearing. He heard lawyers and judges fuss over dictionaries, surveys and the actions of offended 18-year-olds while using terms such as “hearsay exception” and “Chevron deference,” all in a debate over the team’s nickname.
“There was one reference to a delay of game penalty,” Allen said, “which was the football part that I understood.”
As the 90-minute hearing before three judges on the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board showed, the case against the team is not as simple as declaring that the word “redskins” is a slur and therefore shouldn’t have federal trademark protection. The group of five Native American petitioners has to show that the name “Washington Redskins” was disparaging to a significant population of American Indians back when the team was granted the trademarks from 1967 to 1990.
There won’t be a resolution any time soon. Lawyers said they expect the judges to take as long as a year to issue a ruling, and the Redskins are sure to appeal if it doesn’t go their way. A similar case, ultimately won by the team, was filed in 1992 and needed 17 years to go through the legal system before the Supreme Court declined to intervene.
The Redskins lost this round the first time. The board stripped the club of its trademark protection in 1999, but the ruling was overturned on appeal in part because the courts decided that the plaintiffs were too old and had thus waited too long to make their complaint.
This new case was filed in 2006 by a group of five Native Americans aged between 18 and 24, but even that isn’t good enough for Redskins lawyer Robert Raskopf, who told the judges that the 18-year-olds waited nearly a year to join the fray and “should’ve been ready to file on Day One” upon turning 18 if they were truly offended.
The judges didn’t seem impressed by that argument.
“One year is too much?” judge Peter Cataldo asked with a hint of incredulity.
But the judges also gave the Native Americans’ lawyer a grilling, asking him to state the best evidence for his case and stopping him frequently as he gave his answers. Attorney Jesse Witten cited opposition to the name by the National Congress of American Indians — although there was some uncertainty as to how many tribes the NCAI represented at the time — and the overall use of the word “redskin” in the public realm, leading both sides to cite opinion polls and the way the word is defined in literally scores of decades-old dictionaries.
The Redskins maintain the name honours Native Americans and that they don’t mean to offend anybody, but two of the judges questioned that line of thinking. Cataldo said if the team could have called itself the “Washington N-word” with nothing but honourable intentions and still be subject to scrutiny.
The board can’t stop the Redskins from using the name, but the loss of trademark protection would hurt the team financially from a marketing perspective, enough, the plaintiffs hope, for owner Dan Snyder to consider a change.
Allen was subject to his own set of tough questioning afterward by reporters, when he cited the Redskins history, championships and television ratings in defense of the name.
“If you look at everything that we represent, you’ll find that the Washington Redskins has a positive image,” Allen said. “And much more positive this year with a winning season. Our television ratings, our fans, our Washington Redskins charitable organization and what it’s done for this community.”
Asked about the Native Americans who find the name offensive, Allen said: “I’m not going to respond to that, because I don’t know if it’s been proven.”
“I’m sure there’s a handful of critics to anything in our country and anything in sports,” he added.
Allen reiterated that there were no plans to change the name, even though momentum against “Redskins” has been growing in recent weeks, spurred by a high-profile symposium at the Smithsonian that detailed its dubious history.
“Our history is something to be proud of,” he said. “Five world championships. Some of the greatest games, some of the greatest characters who have ever played in the NFL were Washington Redskins. I don’t think you can just turn your back on that, and we don’t plan on doing that.”