2013 couldn’t have gone much worse for the football team that calls Washington home, given that it won only three games, endured a high-profile spat between coach and star quarterback, and dealt with the most serious and sustained challenge yet to its name. It took less than week for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to put quite a damper on 2014, the Washington Post reports:
An application to register the trademark “Redskins Hog Rinds” with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office was refused by an examining attorney on the basis that it contained “a derogatory slang term,” according to a letter from the agency.
“Registration is refused because the applied-for mark REDSKINS HOG RINDS consists of or includes matter which may disparage or bring into contempt or disrepute persons, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols,” reads the letter, dated Dec. 29.
According to the Post, the Office said “Redskins” was a “derogatory slang term,” citing dictionary definitions calling the word “offensive” or “taboo” and noting that Native American groups like the National Congress of American Indians oppose the word’s use.
That’s bad news for the football team because while its name has picked up a litany of opponents in the last six months, from Native American groups to members of Congress to civil rights leaders to the president himself, nothing poses a bigger threat to the continued use of the name than the Patent and Trademark Office. That’s where the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board is considering a case brought by a group of Native Americans who say the team’s name is a “dictionary-defined slur” and that it thus violates a federal law that prohibits trademarking racially offensive terms.
The rejection of “Redskins Hog Rinds” suggests the Trademark Office is sympathetic to those claims, as it was when it originally rescinded the team’s trademark protection as part of a similar suit brought in 1999. That decision was later overturned by an appeals court because of a technicality — the statute of limitations had expired for the plaintiffs in the case. The current group has fixed that problem, though, so it’s possible a rejection from the Trial and Appeals Board could withstand scrutiny upon appeal this time around.
A decision from the board could come at any time, but because of appeals, a full conclusion to the case isn’t likely any time soon. Still, if the name is going to change, it will likely be because the team loses its trademark. That wouldn’t force the team to change its name, but it would prevent owner Dan Snyder, the team, and the NFL from fully protecting Washington’s brand from anyone else who wanted to use the name on merchandise. And because NFL teams split merchandise sales equally among them, that would mean lost money for every NFL owner and the league itself (in the earlier suit, lawyers for the team argued losing the trademark would cause “every imaginable loss you can think of“).
Native American groups like NCAI and the Oneida Nation may see use of the name as a moral issue, but to Snyder and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, as I’ve argued before, a decision to maintain or change the name is a purely financial decision. When the name starts costing the NFL and its owners money, the league will start considering a change even if Snyder doesn’t want to. And barring a major shift in public opinion sometime soon, there’s no faster road to that point than through the government agency that may have — and I caution, may have — just tipped its hand.