More than 80 years after the team’s nickname was born in Boston, the Washington Redskins Wednesday vowed to defend it after a federal board ruled that the club’s trademark protections for the name should be stripped because it is “disparaging of Native Americans.”
The decision is expected to increase political and financial pressure on Redskins owner Daniel Snyder to change the name. President Obama has joined other political, religious, and sports leaders in urging Snyder to drop it.
“The writing is on the wall in giant, blinking neon lights,’’ said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, whose state is home to 27 Native American tribes. “This issue regarding the name ‘Redskins’ is so important to them. Every time they hear this name, it is a sad reminder of a long tradition of racism and bigotry.’’
The US Trademark and Trial Board, in a 2-1 decision, ruled in favor of five Native Americans who asked the US Patent and Trademark Office to cancel the team’s six federal trademark registrations that include the term “Redskins.’’
“I would hope that at some point, even if Daniel Snyder believes the nickname is not disparaging, that he would have enough respect for the opinions of others that he would change the name,’’ said Michael Lindsay, a Minneapolis lawyer who has participated in the decades-long legal fight to abolish the nickname.
Should the ruling stand — and Snyder plans to appeal it — his team would lose the legal protections it enjoys by having the nickname listed as a federally registered trademark. Those protections include the legal presumption that the team owns the trademark, its right to use the trademark symbol, and its ability to rely on the US Customs and Border Patrol Service to help fight foreign infringement and counterfeit practices.
The ruling, however, does not prohibit the team from using the nickname and does not foreclose all of Snyder’s legal rights to fight infringement attempts, according to specialists in trademark law.
The specialists were divided on how much financial damage, if any, the team would suffer if the ruling survives an appeal.
“I think most experts agree that the Redskins will still be able to use the name and enforce the trademark in some ways,’’ said Stacey Dogan, a Boston University Law School professor. “At the same time, I’ve got to think, as both a trademark scholar and a member of our society, that the decision may play some role in the public perception of whether this is an appropriate label to be used in connection with a football team.’’
A similar ruling in 1999 was reversed in 2003 when an appeals court determined the original seven plaintiffs had unreasonably delayed filing their case. Wednesday’s decision cited a 2011 federal law that gave the board broader latitude to weigh the issue.
Snyder’s team, officially known as Pro Football Inc., remained resolute in defending the Redskins label.
“We’ve seen this story before,’’ said the team’s lawyer, Robert Raskopf, referring to the 1999 decision. “And just like the last time, [Wednesday’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.’’
Snyder refused to comment as he left the Redskins field after a minicamp practice. He has long vowed to continue using the nickname, citing both its popularity among fans and its support through the years from some Native Americans. He also has been backed by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.
Snyder’s legal team cited letters in 1992 to the Redskins from chiefs of the Choctaw and Seminole Nations of Oklahoma, approving of the label and logo.
The nickname dates to 1933, when the NFL’s Boston Braves moved their games from Braves Field to Fenway Park and were renamed the Redskins. The team moved to Washington in 1937.
The legal case has centered on the period from 1967 to 1990 when the Redskins obtained the six trademark registrations. The federal board needed to decide whether the term “Redskins’’ was considered disparaging by contemporary society at that time.
In its ruling, the board cited testimony from language specialists that the word’s usage was increasingly considered derogatory from the 1960s to ’90s. The panel also noted that at least 30 percent of Native Americans from 1967-90 viewed the nickname as offensive.
“Thirty percent is without doubt a substantial composite’’ of the Native American population at the time, the board’s majority stated in the ruling. “To determine otherwise means it is acceptable to subject to disparagement 1 out every 3 individuals.’’
The five Native Americans seeking to have the trademarks canceled described themselves as members of the Navajo, Paiute, Kiowa, and Muscogee tribes.
“It is a great victory for Native Americans and for all Americans,’’ said Amanda Blackhorse, a Navajo who is the lead plaintiff in the case.