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.
Photos: Redskins Cheerleaders
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.
So this new case was begun in 2006 by a different group of Native Americans, with ages ranging from 18 to 24 at the time it was filed. For various reasons, it’s taken seven years for it to get this far. It’s now been 21 years since Harjo, now 67, filed the original case.
“It’s not what I do every breathing hour, but it’s been that long since I’ve become a thing rather than a person,” said Harjo, who is president of the Washington-based Morning Star Institute, an advocacy group. “By that, I mean I’m the ‘Harjo case.’ And people talk to me sometimes, saying, ‘Well, in Harjo, da-da da-da da-da.’ It is a little startling.”
The motive is to force Redskins owner Dan Snyder into a change by weakening him financially. Redskins lawyer Robert Raskopf said during the previous case that the team would suffer “every imaginable loss you can think of” if it no longer had the exclusive marketing rights to its name.
A Redskins spokesman said the team would have no comment Wednesday. Snyder has always vowed not to change the name, and the team has said that it is meant to honor Native Americans, not ridicule them. Allen said last month that a change isn’t being considered.
“There’s nothing that we feel is offensive,” Allen said. “And we’re proud of our history.”
The name debate has generated off-and-on discussion in the nation’s capital over the decades, but there’s been a renewed momentum in recent weeks. The Redskins were denounced time and again at a daylong symposium at the Smithsonian last month, and politicians and local columnists have since either expressed reservations about the name or condemned it outright.
“You stack up more and more, greater support,” Harjo said.
Previous predictions of an impending change, however, have not borne fruit. In 1998, while pursuing the first case, Harjo said: “I fully expect these names to be a thing of the past in 10 years. I think that will happen whether or not we win this suit.”
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