Redskins Trademark Ruling Could Be a Game-Changer

When I was teenager, my town’s high school sports teams were known affectionately, if not insensitively, as the “Red Raiders.” Our mascot was a fierce-looking yet comically cartoonish “Indian” wielding a tomahawk and striped with war paint.

Wellesley High’s sports teams, the rosters of which were mostly filled with teenagers from well-heeled suburban families, battled for glory against rival towns including the Natick Redmen, the Watertown Red Raiders, the Wayland Warriors, the Brookline Warriors and the Braintree Wampanoags.

In 1988, Wellesley was the first town in the area to drop the racial epithet and shortened its name to “Raiders,” swapping its war-path mascot for a whey-faced pirate. But it wasn’t exactly the beginning of a new era of enlightenment in liberal Massachusetts. It took the neighboring town of Natick another 20 years to change its name from the “Redmen” to the Redhawks, and only two other towns in the entire commonwealth have since followed suit. According to the New England Anti-Mascot Coalition, there are still 43 high school teams in Massachusetts — and 91 across New England — that still use a form of “Indian” mascot, nickname or logo.

Nationwide, there’s been more progress made on a collegiate level. The NCAA partially banned the use of Native American mascots in 2005, and nine colleges and universities have since joined more than a dozen others in dumping their racially insensitive monikers, from the “Brown Indians” to the “Fighting Sioux.”

But professional sports teams have been laggards. Which is why Wednesday’s ruling by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to cancel the Washington Redskins’ trademark registration on the basis that the team’s name is “disparaging to Native Americans” is potentially a game-changer.

Activist groups have been fighting the NFL franchise for two decades on this matter, making this week’s ruling a cause for celebration.

“We look forward to the team’s selection of a new mascot and name that unites instead of divides the American people and proudly represents, in our nation’s capital, the respect we as American people strive to show to all American people of all ethnic backgrounds,” reads a statement from Eradicating Offensive Native Mascotry, a Native American advocacy group.

The group is urging Nike and Adidas to stop selling apparel for the Redskins’ and other sports franchises with “equally derogatory” names and logos.

The Redskins, however, are making a goal-line stand. The team, which has been in litigation about this for two decades and won a similar lawsuit in 2003, says it will appeal again, according to a press statement, and is “confident” of victory — a bold prediction for a team that finished last season with a 3-13 record.

“We are confident we will prevail once again, and that the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board’s divided ruling will be overturned on appeal,” said Bob Raskopf, trademark attorney for the Washington Redskins, in a team statement. He said the team has no plans to change its name.

They might be foolish not to, argues American University law professor Christine Farley. She says the Redskins basically have two options: they can continue to litigate in court, as they’ve done for the past two decades, or change their name and potentially cash-in on a merchandising boom. “There’s no good third option,” the trademark expert told Fusion. “They still have common law legal rights to the team name, but now anyone else can merchandise Redskins gear.”

Ironically, the trademark ruling could backfire if other teams decide to adopt the Redskins name or logo, which is no longer protected by trademark. But Farley says she’d be “extremely surprised” if that happened.

Jackie Pata, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, agrees that times have changed. She hopes Wednesday’s ruling will feed what she calls a “groundswell” against derogatory team names and mascots.

“People are becoming more conscious about this issue and are making their own changes,” Pata told Fusion. Many of the old racist mascots that were adopted in the 20s-50s, represent a different era in U.S. history — a time of systematic efforts to “terminate tribes” and force indigenous people to assimilate, Pata says. “Now we’re living in a different environment of social consciousness.”

Joel Barkin, spokesman for the Oneida Indian Nation, which operates the @ChangeDCMascot Twitter feed, thinks the ruling against the Redskins marks a turning of the tide.

“We will never see a new team with a mascot like this; and that’s a huge accomplishment,” he said. “Now it’s about removing these last vestiges of offensive mascots.”

It worked for Wellesley High. The school’s varsity soccer and football teams have since gone on to win four state championships. I’m not suggesting that the Redskins would win more games just by changing their name, but it would be hard to win fewer.

Colin McDonald contributed reporting to this story. Andy Dubbin contributed a cartoon.