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Judge upholds 'Redskins' trademark cancellation decision

A District Court judge upheld the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office's decision to cancel Washington's "Redskins" trademark.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

A judge ruled in favor of opponents of the Washington NFL team's "Redskins" name Wednesday after hearing arguments from both sides in District Court this week, according to the Washington Post. Washington filed a lawsuit in August to contest the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office decision to remove the trademark registration on the team's name. The patent office removed the trademark because it deemed the name offensive to a large number of Native Americans.

The legal team behind the defendants, five Native Americans led by Amanda Blackhorse, hailed the decision.


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"This is a huge victory. Getting this ruling from a U.S. District judge is a watershed event," Jesse Witten, the lead litigating partner for the defense, told the Washington Post. "The team has been fighting this case so hard and leaving no stone unturned and scorching every square inch of earth that it's hard to imagine they will not appeal."

Witten explained the decision in a statement to SB Nation.

"After reviewing all the evidence presented by the parties, the District Court agreed with the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board that the trademarks should never have been registered in the first place because they may disparage Native Americans. We introduced evidence that for decades, the National Congress of American Indians and other leading Native American groups and individuals have opposed the team's name. We also introduced dictionary definitions, scholarly articles, newspaper clips and other evidence of how the term ‘redskin' has been used over the years."

The case may have turned, in part, on a recent Supreme Court decision that ruled in favor of the State of Texas' right to ban specialty license plates bearing the Confederate flag. The Supreme Court ruled that Texas was not violating the First Amendment rights of the group that proposed the plate's design. The defendants argued that the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office removed the "Redskins" trademark on the same basis.

Details of the trial have not yet surfaced. Washington released a statement from president Bruce Allen suggesting that the team did not receive a fair judgment.

I am surprised by the judge's decision to prevent us from presenting our evidence in an open trial. We look forward to winning on appeal after a fair and impartial review of the case. We are convinced that we will win because the facts and the law are on the side of our franchise that has proudly used the name Redskins for more than 80 years.

Blackhorse sued the team and won a decision in June of last year that was hailed by their legal team as "a milestone victory." While the decision did not prevent Washington from using "Redskins," it threatened to significantly hamper the team's profitability by allowing others to use the name for their financial gain.

Washington owner Dan Snyder mounted a stalwart defense of the name, vowing to never change it. He may have to strongly reconsider that position now. He could face pressure from the NFL's 31 other franchises, who may also take a financial hit due to the league's revenue sharing system.

According to the Washington Post, Washington's lawyers assessed the team's value at $2.4 billion in August 2014, with $214 million tied to brand management.

Snyder could still appeal to a higher court. Given his proclivity to fight, this seems like a likely outcome. Washington may still have a chance to win its trademark back, too. Washington lost its trademark in a 1999 decision, only to win it back in District Court.

The Blackhorse team has already moved past that step, however, so there's no question that it has scored a significant victory.