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Washington Redskins logo Fair Use

Let’s hear it for the United States Patent and Trademark Office, which today cancelled the Washington Redskins’ six trademark registrations. According to the law, you can’t legally register a trademark that is disparaging to a substantial portion of the “referenced group” — in this case, Native Americans.

You say “Redskins” isn’t disparaging?

No doubt, the import of a term can change with time and place and context.  It happens that a name that is innocuous in one era becomes a slur in another — and vice versa. “Quakers” and “Shakers” were originally pejoratives applied to religious groups that manifested their faith through odd physical behavior, but in due course the groups embraced the names. “Yid” means “Jew” in, well, Yiddish, but would the Redskins’ Jewish owner, Daniel Snyder, contend that renaming his team “The Yids” wouldn’t be disparaging?

Some descendants of the pre-Columbian inhabitants of North America have, in fact, gone back to calling themselves Indians. There have been objections to the the Cleveland Indians and the Atlanta Braves, though those franchises have at least retired their embarrassing mascots, Chiefs Wahoo and Noc-a-homa respectively.

But “Redskins” is simply beyond the, ah, pale. Research by the Patent Office has determined that the term has been generally understood by lexicographers as disparaging ever since the trademarks were registered half a century ago, and that at minimum 30 percent of the referenced population considers it as such. That is more than enough to meet the threshold for rejecting trademark status.

The Redskins got an earlier decision by the Patent Office in a similar complaint reversed by a federal court not on the merits of whether their name disparages Native Americans but for the technical reason that the plaintiffs were of an age that they should have filed the complaint earlier. Now there are younger plaintiffs, and the confidence that the team’s attorney expressed that the decision would again be reversed may be misplaced.

Really, though, it’s time for other NFL franchises, and the NFL itself, to stand up and be counted. Not to mention the fans of a franchise that has become an embarrassment in more ways than one. The Redskins last won the Super Bowl in 1991 and they haven’t managed to get past the wild card playoff so far this century. Last season they won only three games.

The Redskins have become to professional football what Washington has become to professional governance. Let their name be changed. Just not to the Senators.

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Mark Silk

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life.

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