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Redskins Name Lawsuit Heard By Federal Board

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(Credit: Al Bello/Getty Images)

(Credit: Al Bello/Getty Images)

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WASHINGTON (CBSDC/AP) — The long-running battle over the Washington Redskins name got a restart Thursday, when a group of Native Americans argued that the franchise should lose its federal trademark protection, based on a law that prohibits registered names that are disparaging, scandalous, contemptuous or disreputable.

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.

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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.

Redskins general manager Bruce Allen said last month that it is “ludicrous” to think that the team is “trying to upset anybody” with its nickname, which many Native Americans consider to be offensive. Allen said after Thursday’s hearing that he doesn’t know if it’s been proven that the name is offensive and that the team has no plans to change it.

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.”

As someone who has spent nearly a third of her life fighting the Redskins nickname, Suzan Shown Harjo says that’s beside the point. She’s never suggested that the Redskins deliberately set out to offend anyone. But that doesn’t mean that people aren’t offended.

“It’s just like a drive-by shooting,” Harjo said Wednesday. “They’re trying to make money, and not caring who is injured in the process — or if anyone is injured in the process. I don’t think they wake up or go to sleep dreaming of ways to hurt Native people. I think they wake up and go to sleep thinking of ways to make money — off hurting Native people.”

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Harjo has won this round before. She was one of the plaintiffs when the board stripped the Redskins of the trademark in 1999, but the ruling was overturned in 2003 in large part on a technicality. Essentially, the courts decided that the plaintiffs were too old, that they should have filed their complaint soon after the Redskins registered their nickname in 1967, or shortly after they became adults and therefore old enough to file a case.

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