Supreme Court May Rule on Redskins' Name

How long will the Washington Redskins stay the Redskins? The professional football team has long been the focus of controversy for what some consider a defamatory name, and after 17 years of legal wrangling, the Supreme Court may hear a suit that could revoke the 'Skins federal protection of their name and logo. On Sept. 14, six Native Americans petitioned the high court to hear their appeal.

"I think people will look back on this case 20 years from now, and really wonder why this was ever considered a debatable issue," says Philip Mause, an attorney representing the Native Americans pro bono in the suit.

"'Redskin' is the most derogatory word you can use to describe a Native American," says Bill Means, founder of the International Indian Treaty Council. The term originates from the bounty-hunting days, when colonies and companies would pay settlers for dead American Indians. Scalps, called "redskins," were used as trophies and proof because it was too difficult to carry the entire body, says Suzan Harjo, one of the plaintiffs in the suit. "In some cases male scalps could be bought for 80 cents, women for 60 [cents], and children for even less. This term describes a heinous act," Harjo adds.

Some football fans argue that the name was actually picked to honor a Native American. William Henry (Lone Star) Dietz was head coach of the team during its infancy, and in the 1930s the name was supposedly changed to Redskins to honor his purported Sioux heritage. But that tale is almost certainly apocryphal.

According to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, in 1932, George Preston Marshall acquired the team and named it the Boston Braves after the city's Major League Baseball team. In the past, it was common for professional baseball and football teams in the same city to share team names. But a year later, Marshall decided to change the football team's name to the Boston Redskins to differentiate the winning football program from the losing baseball team. In 1937, the Redskins moved to Washington.

Fans say that over the years, the name has evolved a new, inoffensive meaning. "If you see the term 'Redskins' in the newspaper, it's clear the term is referring to a successful NFL football team, and people don't think of the term used in a derogatory manner," says Bob Raskopf, an attorney representing the Redskins in the case. "There is no doubt that the Redskins have created their own brand recognition for the team; the name stands for honor, pride, and tradition."

Litigation surrounding the name started back in 1992, when seven Native Americans decided to take on one of the most popular NFL franchises. "I wanted to change the name of the Washington Redskins because it represented the worst thing they can call us, and it's right here in our nation's capital," Harjo says.

The lawsuit is challenging six Redskins trademarks, including the image of the Native American on the helmet, the image of a spear, the script version of the word Redskins, and the name of the professional cheerleading squad, the Redskinettes. In 1967, the team officially started to protect these marks under federal copyright law. The plaintiffs in the suit claim that none of these logos should have received protection because they are all defamatory. Under the Lanham Act, words, symbols, and logos cannot be registered by the Patent and Trademark Office if they are deemed disparaging to a group of people. The courts have been asked to determine whether the term "Redskins" may have disparaged a substantial number of Native Americans at the time the marks were registered in the 1960s (copyright law considers whether a logo was defamatory at the time of registration, not whether it is offensive today).

The American Indians won the suit in 1999, temporarily causing the NFL team to lose its federal trademark protection. On appeal, the case was reversed in favor of the football franchise because the plaintiffs waited too long to bring their suit—the Redskins had been using the team name for 25 years before it was challenged. This September, the Native Americans filed a petition with the Supreme Court asking it to hear the case. If it does, it will be asked to determine whether the plaintiffs did in fact wait too long to file suit. But even if the Supreme Court were to rule against the plaintiffs in this case, that would be unlikely to put the issue to rest.

In its 2003 decision in favor of the team, the D.C. Circuit Court noted that to circumvent the problem of the suit being brought too late, the plaintiffs would need to find an individual who can file suit at the first moment he or she has the legal right to do so, in short, someone who has just come of legal age. In August 2006, a group of Native Americans ranging in age from 18 to 24 filed a lawsuit identical to the one currently pending. That case is on hold until the present suit is resolved, but if the current suit is unsuccessful, the new one will proceed.

In 2004, The Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania asked 768 Native Americans whether they were offended by the Washington Redskins' name. About 90 percent of those polled said they were not bothered, and only 9 percent said they found the team name offensive. Nonetheless, Harjo says that litigation surrounding the Redskins will continue until the name is changed.

Raskopf sees that as pointless. "The suit has been brought too late, and it's unfair to my client who has built [the Redskins] brand since 1967," he says. "[The plaintiffs] have had more than their day in court; they have had years in court and haven't gotten anywhere."

Of course, the Redskins aren't the only professional sports team whose name could get bogged down in the court system. The Atlanta Braves, Chicago Blackhawks, Cleveland Indians, and Kansas City Chiefs all have American Indian nicknames, and the Native American community might potentially challenge any of them in the future. "We are not mascots for fun and games," says Means. "We will not allow these teams to keep dehumanizing our people."