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Trademark Board hears Racist Washington R-Word

As I’ve noted in previous posts (here, updated here and here), lately sentiment has increased in Washington, DC, to change the racist name of its NFL team, as something that reflects badly on the nation’s capital. The team’s own arguments for keeping the name have certainly been refuted.

However, it has always been recognized that moral arguments have little or no effect on the team’s front office and ownership, and that the change will occur only when their bottom line is affected. To that end, a case against the team’s trademarking the name and associated symbols, brought by a group of five Native Americans organized by long-time activist Suzan Shown Harjo, was heard yesterday by the U. S. Patent Office’s Trial and Appeal Board. The hearing by three judges was covered by the Associated Press and reported on the ESPN website and in WaPo. A HuffPo article from yesterday makes some other points.

Basically, what has to be shown to get the trademark cancelled is that the R-word “was disparaging to a significant population of American Indians back when the team was granted the trademarks from 1967 to 1990.” A ruling in the plaintiffs’ favor would not ban the sale of items such as T-shirts with the current team logo, but would remove protection from the sale of knockoff paraphernalia at cheaper prices. A similar case was won at this level in 1999 but the victory was thrown out on appeal, on the technicality that the plaintiffs waited too long to file the action.

The 90 minute hearing included arguments by the opposing attorneys and tough questions to both by the judges. However, it is reported that one judge seemed incredulous when the team’s attorney tried to invoke the technicality that doomed the last proceeding, asking rhetorically “one year is too much?” Two judges questioned the team’s claim that the name actually honors Native Americans, with one of them wondering out loud if the same claim would be made if the team were called “the Washington N-word.”

The team’s general manager was in attendance and responded to reporters’ questions afterward by saying that the team has a positive image, and that he was unaware “if it’s been proven” that the name is offensive to Native Americans.

A ruling is not expected soon (possibly as late as a year hence), and of course would be subject to appeal.

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E. F. Beall

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