Money

Trademark Office and Sen. Reid Pressure Football Team Owner Again

The U.S. Trademark Trial and Appeal Board’s cancellation of federal trademark registration for the name Washington “Redskins,” after ruling it disparages Native Americans, puts pressure on team owner Daniel Snyder and the National Football League (NFL) to change the name but falls far short of settling the issue.

The split, 2-1, decision by unelected trademark board members shows the increasingly heavy hand that politics is playing in the activities of the private sector, since the ruling followed recent public calls for a name change from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. The team counters that the long-standing “Redskins” name is intended to honor Native Americans and its trademark attorney expressed confidence that the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board’s June 18 ruling would be overturned on appeal.

At stake for Snyder and the NFL are millions of dollars in annual “Redskins” merchandise sales that feature the team name and its distinctive logo. The huge long-term financial stakes for the team and the NFL heighten the importance of fighting the decision on legal grounds, as has been done successfully in the past.

While the ruling is under appeal, the team can continue using the name and trademark without interruption. In fact, the trademark board issued a similar ruling more than 20 years ago that was overturned on appeal in 2003, when a federal court found the claim of disparagement “unsupported by substantial evidence, is logically flawed and fails to apply the correct legal standard to its own findings of fact.”

The trademark ruling also raises questions about whether other sports team names could be interpreted as disparaging. Does the nickname “Vikings” shed people of Scandinavian heritage in a negative light, even though the NFL team in Minnesota that uses that name represents a state settled by people from Nordic nations? Is the name “Fighting Irish” used by the University of Notre Dame disparaging of people whose family ancestry is from Ireland?

The name “Redskins” originated in 1933 when the team moved to Boston’s Fenway Park, after playing its first season at Braves Field in the same city and using the nickname “Braves.” The nickname stayed with the team when it moved to Washington in 1937.

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