WASHINGTON (AP/WJLA) - The U.S. Patent Office ruled Wednesday that the Washington Redskins nickname is "disparaging of Native Americans" and that the team's federal trademarks for the name must be canceled.
The 2-1 ruling comes after a campaign to change the name that has gained momentum over the past year. The team doesn't immediately lose trademark protection and is allowed to retain it during an appeal.
Redskins owner Daniel Snyder has refused to change the team's name, citing tradition, but there has been growing pressure including statements in recent months from President Barack Obama, lawmakers of both parties and civil rights groups.
The ruling came down as Redskins were wrapping up minicamp for the day, and the team’s trademark attorney released a statement saying:
"We’ve seen this story before. And just like last time, today’s ruling will have no effect at all on the team’s ownership of and right to use the Redskins name and logo.”
The case is a result of a suit filed by a handful of Native Americans back in 2006, and on Wednesday, the plaintiff released a statement saying:
"I hope this ruling brings us a step closer to that inevitable day when the name of the Washington football team will be changed. The team’s name is racist and derogatory.”
It was a ruling so significant that it even had these Dallas Cowboys fans expressing sympathy for the Redskins.
The decision means that the team can continue to use the Redskins name, but it would lose a significant portion of its ability to protect its financial interests. If others printed the name on sweatshirts, apparel, or other team material, it becomes more difficult to go after people who use it without permission.
“The recognition that this racial designation based on skin color is disparaging to Native Americans is also demonstrated by the near complete drop-off in usage of ‘redskins’ as a reference to Native Americans beginning in the 1960’s,” Administrative Trademark Judge Karen Kuhlke wrote in her conclusion.
Kuhlke wrote that the record established that "at a minimum" 30 percent of Native Americans found the word Redskins offensive, constituting a significant enough portion of the population (called a substantial composite) to cancel the trademarks. A substantial composite, she wrote, "need not be a majority of the referenced group."
"Respondent has introduced evidence that some in the Native American
community do not find the term 'Redskin' disparaging when it is used in connection with professional football. While this may reveal differing opinions within the community, it does not negate the opinions of those who find it disparaging," Kuhlke wrote.
The Redskins say they will appeal, putting the board’s decision on hold and keeping the team’s legal protections in place – for now.
Professor Rebecca Tushnet is a trademark expert at Georgetown Law School, and explains:
"They can keep using the name -- in fact, even if they lose, they can keep using the name; they just won't be able to stop other people from using it."
Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton told ABC7: "The handwriting was almost indelibly on the wall that this historic decision was close to inevitable…It is time for the team and the NFL to put this issue to rest."
Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid even took to the Senate Floor to argue against Dan Snyder:
"Daniel Snyder says it's about tradition. I ask, 'What tradition?' The tradition of racism is all that name leaves in its wake."
In 1999, the same board made a similar ruling that was struck down by a federal judge in 2003.
The experts we talked to expect the Redskins appeal to ultimately go to the Supreme Court, unless Snyder or the NFL give in to the mounting pressure to change the name.
The full decision document is below.U.S. Patent and Trademark Office decision canceling Redskins trademarks