Government overreach in Redskins trademark case?

A player carries a Redskins helmet with a football in it. Washington bureaucrats are making subjective judgements about offensiveness, writes the Federalist's Robert Tracinski

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On Wednesday the US Patent and Trademark Office cancelled six of the trademarks belonging to the Washington Redskins National Football League team, finding the team name offensive to Native Americans.

The ruling shouldn't be particularly shocking - the Patent Office had issued a similar decision in 1998 before being reversed on appeal - but the political environment surrounding the name has shifted considerably in the last 16 years. Proponents of a name change are heralding the latest decision as a possible turning point that will force team owner Daniel Snyder's hand.

"It's hard to view the new ruling as anything other than the beginning of the end of the name," writes Damon Darlin of the New York Times. "It has now been assailed not just by Native American groups but by the president of the United States and half the Senate, which ultimately controls the various tax and legal advantages the NFL enjoys. Players in football and many other sports are now routinely asked their view of the name, and their evident discomfort with it is rising."

That discomfort is reflected in the media as well, as the Seattle Times on Wednesday announced that it would no long print the team's nickname, which sports editor Don Shelton called "absurd, offensive and outdated".

The Times joins a growing list of media outlets that have made a similar decision, including the San Francisco Chronicle, the Orange County Register, the Oregonian and the Washington City Paper.

The Federalist's Robert Tracinski says that no matter how uncomfortable people may be with the Redskins name, the Patent Office shouldn't have become involved. The action, he writes, sets a terrifying precedent.

"The ruling was based on a dubious argument that 'redskins' is a slur against Native Americans," he writes. By that logic, he says, we should probably rename the state of Oklahoma (derived from the Choctaw Indian word for "red people") and the US Army Apache helicopter, named for a tribe the US military defeated.

Daniel Snyder at a press conference on 9 January, 2014. Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder plans to appeal the Patent Office decision

What is and isn't offensive is subjective, he writes, which is why the government should have stayed away from the controversy and let market pressures sort it out.

Because the opponents of the name were failing in the court of public opinion, he says, they turned to one of their "favourite fallbacks": government bureaucracy.

"Bureaucrats in Washington are now empowered to make subjective decrees about what is offensive and what will be tolerated, based on pressure from a small clique of Washington insiders," he writes. "Anyone who runs afoul of these decrees, anyone branded as regressive and politically incorrect, is declared outside the protection of the federal government."

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The lesson here is that guilty-feeling white liberals are a threat to freedom”

End Quote Erick Erickson RedState blog

The Wall Street Journal's editors say this is all just another case of government employees following "liberal orders".

"The Obama Democrats now think government should dictate team mascots," they write.

For RedState blog's Erick Erickson, it's just another case of white guilt.

"The lesson here is that guilty-feeling white liberals are a threat to freedom and, in Barack Obama's America, the key to survive is to not appear on the radar of in Washington DC," he writes. "Once Washington's elite know of your existence and you do not behave like them, they will turn the power of government in your direction."

Tracinski's fellow Federalist writer Rachel Lu says the same logic applied to the Redskins could be used to do away with teams with other ethnic mascots, such as the University of Notre Dame "Fighting Irish", which she says invokes "ugly stereotypes about Irish alcoholism and a propensity for brawling".

To those who say the Irish people have embraced the name, she replies:

What percentage of Irish people have been consulted about the Notre Dame mascot? And even if they did approve, shall we permit the oppressed to approve their own degradation? Do not our own consciences tingle every time use "tradition" as an excuse for participating in such obvious and unapologetic bigotry?

The difference with Notre Dame, and other Irish-inspired mascots, writes Talking Points Memo's Josh Marshall, is that they are teams "historically associated" with the Irish-American community.

"Clearly context matters," he says. "History matters. Indians or Native Americans aren't just any group in American history. Their role is singular in something like the way African-Americans are."

While the Patent Office's decision may be symbolically important, it will have little real-world impact for now. Mr Synder's legal team has already announced it will appeal, so the ruling is on hold until then. And even the team eventually loses, it can still sue people or companies using the Redskins name for civil damages due to "trademark confusion".

Trademark registration offers additional legal protections, but losing it won't give counterfeiters free rein to start printing knockoff Redskins merchandise, for instance.

In other words, whether or not you agree that the Patent Office decision is a bad precedent, Tracinski is right about this: a Redskins name change likely will come down to public opinion and market forces.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 75.

    Politics of war is like sport to USA on the box, but there is always mission creep somewhat like invading / helping Iraq creeping to Syria

  • rate this

    Comment number 74.

    You're right, for kids under 10, soccer is the most popular sport played in the US, mostly because it's easy for them to play requiring little skill at that level. But, once they get older and prove to their parents that they can make it through an entire game without crying, the vast majority move on to baseball, basketball, and football.

  • rate this

    Comment number 73.

    Your belated point aside: Soccer is the fastest growing sport in the US. In a few years it will overtake football in popularity. Why? Because US parents no longer want their children playing a contact sport like football and the logical choice is soccer. By the way I did make an error in my previous post: US football is tied with basketball at 9th place worldwide; not baseball.

  • rate this

    Comment number 72.

    #71 bespokesman - Soccer isn't a sport in the US. I challenge you to go out on the streets of the US and ask someone to name one current pro-soccer player, heck try asking them to name a pro-soccer team! You can't do it. My point remains, this is a media controversy to fill air time. Sorry, but World Cup highlights don't fill the gap (in the US) left by the offseason of the other pro sports.

  • rate this

    Comment number 71.

    #69 littleb1 - “soccer isn't a sport” - - If that was intended to be a serious comment, then your cultural myopia is simply staggering. With an estimated 3.5 billion fans worldwide, soccer is the most popular game – indeed #1 ‘sport’ – on this particular planet. US football comes in a distant 9th – tied with baseball – with a ‘mere’ 400 million fans. How did you even FIND the BBC?

  • rate this

    Comment number 70.

    Too bad our government is more concerned about the name of the Redskins than the three million unemployed that were cut off from unemployment benefits six months ago who can't feed their kids or keep their homes. Seems like they have their priorities mixed up.

  • rate this

    Comment number 69.

    No in the U.S. cares about this issue. The Redskins will win in court. Basically a few in the media have taken up this "issue" to try and create a controversy that allows them to have something to talk about during the annual summer sports drought. NBA, NHL are done for the year, football doesn't start until the fall, and MLB is to early in the season to be interesting (soccer isn't a sport).

  • rate this

    Comment number 68.

    Having just traveled through Gallup, New Mexico, the so-called "Indian Capital of the World," (re: "Native American"), believe me, all the Native American people are really up in arms over something as pointless as a name for an NFL professional football team. (See comment #67 below.) Gallup, by the way, calls itself "one of the most patriotic small towns in America." God bless Gallup, New Mexico!

  • rate this

    Comment number 67.

    I think the new team name should be "The Washington Politically Correctors"

  • rate this

    Comment number 66.

    Of course anything that smacks of governmental oversight is an anathema to the right wing unless it benefits one of their holy shrines. It is time the NFL and other super conglomerates i.e. oil, banks, agribusiness begin playing by the same rules as the rest of the world.

  • rate this

    Comment number 65.

    Meanwhile those who write about white guilt, and liberals totally fail to mention that native Americans find the name offensive. The name should go as it is offensive to native Americans.

  • rate this

    Comment number 64.

    First, if I were Daniel Snyder I'd remove all Indian logos and replace them with 3 or 4 redskin potatoes. Case closed ???
    Second, I just finished reading about the latest "Apache" helicopter for the military. So that, and other Native American names for military helicopters is OK ??
    Hypocritical ???

  • rate this

    Comment number 63.

    Since there is so much pork in Washington, maybe they should rename the team Washington Pig Skins.

  • rate this

    Comment number 62.

    We all have to communicate with the melanin in us, no matter if you are white on the outside you are black on the inside and your melanin needs you no matter of how much you are ashamed of it

  • rate this

    Comment number 61.

    Chalk up another one for government intrusion into our minds. Here we set course for goverment to control traditional names or images some grow to find offensive. A better case could be made for doing something about the public display of torture, like that of a person nailed to a cross!

  • rate this

    Comment number 60.

    Sports are laced with master race racial metaphors referencing war and sex and genetical superiority wiping out opponents

  • rate this

    Comment number 59.

    Tottenham Hotspur fans call themselves the Y_d Army. They use the term with pride and do so to highlight racism and anti-Semitism among Football fans in Europe. Some "politically correct" people took offense to the Y_d Army and the y_d chants. Jewish community members supported the Y_d army against the crazy liberals. Much ado about nothing. Too bad Dempsey & Bale are no longer at the club.

  • rate this

    Comment number 58.

    To be on the safe side, if your feelings are hurt, take it to the courts now, at the off-chance enough Americans get their heads out of their bleeding donkeys by 2016.

  • rate this

    Comment number 57.

    Conservative bloggers moan about everything, literally everything, purely to spin it into anti-Obama rhetoric. They will have a really good point to make one of these days and it won't even register because its all become white noise to me. As I understand it an Indian tribe filed the formal complaint about the name, they find it insulting, the patent office agrees. I don't see an Obama plot here.

  • rate this

    Comment number 56.

    "Government overreach"-?

    No such thing, between liberal Democrats and their nanny.


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