‘Redskins’? That’s offensive. (Or is it?)

March 8, 2013

Redskins TMWhen my alma mater was deciding on a mascot to go with its former nickname, The Marquette University Warriors, it didn’t choose a noble Jesuit knight or an intrepid explorer, even though those would have made sense.  For some reason, we had a pretty offensive American Indian caricature named Will E. Wampum.

Marquette has since changed its mascot to The Golden Eagles (and, for a brief and disastrous, moment, “the Gold”), but lots of other teams haven’t. From the University of North Dakota Fighting Sioux to the Kansas City Chiefs, names and mascots that offend American Indians have proved surprisingly enduring.

Now, one group has turned to our intellectual property regime in attempt to change that.

In short order, a group of American Indian advocates will appear before the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board to argue that the Washington Redskins should not enjoy trademark protection. The goal is to force the team into choosing a different name; if it cannot prevent others from using its nickname and image, perhaps it will change names and select one that it can properly prevent others from appropriating. (It’s hard to make money, after all, on something that’s available to anyone.)

That same board agreed the Redskins should not have trademark protection back in 1999, but that decision was overturned because of a technical flaw — a flaw that does not apply to this group of plaintiffs.

The plaintiffs are arguing that trademark protection should not be granted because terms that are “disparaging, scandalous, contemptuous or disreputable” are not able to be trademarked.

Obviously, then, the case will come down to whether the name “Redskins” is “disparaging.” I have no idea what the board will decide, but I will be interested to read its decision. In this day and age, it’s hard for me to imagine how a term like “Redskins” would be seen as anything but. (And no, I don’t buy the Redskins’ argument that its name “honors” American Indians.)

Then again, it’s 2013, and the name still persists.