As I'm sure you've heard, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office just issued a landmark ruling, cancelling the trademark registration for the Washington Redskins.
Don't let the legalese and the spin coming from Daniel Snyder and the NFL dull the excitement, this is a little bit like the Feds getting Capone on tax evasion. Yes, the Redskins will appeal. Yes, the team will probably still be using a racial slur as a nickname this upcoming season. But this fight is essentially over, all that's left now is to see how much damage the NFL does to the shield as they grudgingly accept defeat.
The heart of the ruling is the two-pronged test the USPTO used to underpin its decision:
a. What is the meaning of the matter in question, as it appears in the marks and as those marks are used in connection with the goods and services identified in the registrations?
b. Is the meaning of the marks one that may disparage Native Americans?
The office easily established that "Redskin" was meant to mean "Native American" as the Washington Football teams uses it. Putting an actual Native American on the helmet and having the band dance around like "wild injuns" in a Mark Twain novel probably sealed the deal on that.
The second prong goes right after the ridiculous arguments Snyder and the NFL have been making in defense of the nickname:
The question is only as to the second prong, whether the term is disparaging... In other words, respondent's alleged honorable intent and manner of use of the term do not contribute to the determination of whether a substantial composite of the referenced group found REDSKINS to be a disparaging term in the context of respondent's services during the time period 1967-1990, because the services have not removed the Native American meaning from the term and intent does not affect the second prong. If ti is found to be disparaging during the relevant time period, then the Trademark Act mandates removal from the register.
Snyder has been running around the country trying to convince people that he doesn't mean "redskin" offensively, he means it "nobly" or something. He wants us to think that if he doesn't mean anything offensive by it, then it becomes non-offensive.
In response, the USPTO effectively shot Snyder's buddy and then said, "You were saying something about best intentions?" The office said that Snyder's intent is irrelevant to the question of whether or not "redskins" is offensive.
Ballgame. Once you establish that intent doesn't matter, it's very easy to show that "redskin" is a slur. The decision is 177 pages, but after that bit, there's only one way it could end. The Redskins will appeal, but now they've got to get a court to say, "Actually, 'Redskins' is NOT disparaging to Native Americans." Good luck with that.
Meanwhile, taking away trademark registration from an organization that makes a ton of money selling trademarked gear is huge. The Washington Football Club will still have some right to sue people who infringe on its unregistered mark, but those are very difficult cases to win. Washington will have to go to court and essentially sue somebody for appropriating a slur. Knock-off RGIII jerseys for everybody.
More importantly, I expect that this decision will make the National Football League force Washington Football Club owner Daniel Snyder to stop being racist. Native Americans say it's a slur, people of conscience say it's a slur, and now the federal government says it's a slur. They can continue to fight along all legal avenues against this, but at some point they are going to realize that they are standing in open court arguing for ownership rights over a racial epithet. A football team should know when it's beaten.
Meanwhile, somewhere, I'd like to imagine Chief Wahoo shaking in his caricatured moccasins.