The Washington Redskins name has been denied registration by the United States Patent and Trademark Office because the name is "disparaging to Native Americans," the U.S. PTO annoucned Wednesday (via Think Progress). The U.S. PTO reportedly cancelled six federal trademark registrations for the name, citing federal law that does not allow people or organizations to protect offensive or disparaging language.
The decision came from the office's Trial and Appeal Board, in response to a case brought against the team by Amanda Blackhorse. If the ruling sticks, team owner Dan Snyder and the Redskins would, essentially, lose control of the brand, allowing anyone to use the Redskins name as they see fit for commercial gain.
In its press release, the litigation team behind Blackhorse called the decision "a milestone victory."
"The Trademark Trial and Appeal Board agreed with our clients that the team's name and trademarks disparage Native Americans. The Board ruled that the Trademark Office should never have registered these trademarks in the first place," said Jesse Witten, the lead Drinker Biddle partner litigating this case. "We presented a wide variety of evidence - including dictionary definitions and other reference works, newspaper clippings, movie clips, scholarly articles, expert linguist testimony, and evidence of the historic opposition by Native American groups - to demonstrate that the word ‘redskin' is an ethnic slur." Witten added. "This victory was a long time coming and reflects the hard work of many attorneys at our firm."
The decision will not have an immediate impact on the Redskins. The team can still appeal and use the trademarked Redskins name in the mean time. Still, the ruling is a serious blow against the campaign that Snyder has mounted against increased pressure to change the name of the team.
Snyder declined to comment on the ruling while he left the field at Redskins minicamp Wednesday, according to Mark Maske of the Washington Post.
Pressure has come from several directions, including half of the United States Senate, media and Native Americans themselves. During Game 3 of the NBA Finals last week, an ad that was paid for by the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation highlighted the history of Native Americans before taking a parting shot at the Redskins.
Snyder's has been stalwart in his defense of the name. In a letter he sent to season ticket holders last October, he cited the association of the name "Redskins" with the team's lengthy history (by NFL standards) and its symbolic importance to himself and fans. Last March, he started the Original Americans Foundation in what he claimed was a charitable effort to honor and support Native Americans, but many interpreted the gesture as a concession to appease critics so that he could hold on to the Redskins name.
Whether the ruling sticks remains to be seen. The U.S. PTO made the same ruling in 1999 on a complaint filed in 1992, only to see it overturned in court on a technicality. According to the plaintiffs, the technicality has been rectified.
The NFL has yet to release a statement on the ruling. Its last statement on the matter came in response to the letter that 50 U.S. senators sent to the NFL urging the league to force the Redskins to change the name of the franchise.
"We have not received the letter, but the NFL has long demonstrated a commitment to progressive leadership on issues of diversity and inclusion, both on and off the field," NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said in a statement. "The intent of the team's name has always been to present a strong, positive and respectful image. The team name is not used by the team or the NFL in any other context, though we respect those that view it differently."
The NFL uses revenue sharing among teams in its financial model, so if the ruling is not overturned upon appeal then Snyder could face more pressure from the rest of the league (that is, if he were somehow considering continuing forward with a name he can't market). It should be noted, however, that revenue sharing has decreased sharply since the 2011 collective bargaining agreement, which reduced the overall share of revenue given to players.
The U.S. PTO's full ruling below: