For the past few years now, the public has been arguing over the name of the football team in our nation’s capital: the Washington Redskins.
“Redskin”, of course, is a derogatory term for Native American. However, many supporters of the name, like team owner Dan Snyder, say that most Native Americans aren’t bothered by the name and that the mascot is meant to celebrate the Native American community and heritage.
Whichever way you feel about the issue, it seems that the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) may have ended the debate for good. Early this morning, they ruled that they would be canceling six federal trademarks for the name of the Washington Redskins, citing a federal law that prohibits the protection of offensive or disparaging language.
In it’s official opinion, the USPTO board wrote,
“We decide, based on the evidence properly before us, that these registrations must be cancelled because they were disparaging to Native Americans at the respective times they were registered.”
The case was brought by Amanda Blackhorse, a Native American issues advocate who wrote a piece for the Huffington Post last year about why the Redskins should change their name. She had this to say about the decision:
“I am extremely happy that the [Board] ruled in our favor… It is a great victory for Native Americans and for all Americans. We filed our petition eight years ago and it has been a tough battle ever since. I hope this ruling brings us a step closer to that inevitable day when the name of the Washington football team will be changed. The team’s name is racist and derogatory. I’ve said it before and I will say it again – if people wouldn’t dare call a Native American a ‘redskin’ because they know it is offensive, how can an NFL football team have this name?”
For the sake of full disclosure, I’m on Blackhorse’s side when it comes to this debate. Considering the extent to which Native Americans were devastated by the European colonization of the United States, I’ve always found it particularly offensive that a team in our nation’s capital would have a “Redskin” as their mascot.
That being said, I’m a little bit surprised that the USPTO stepped into the fight. While I do believe they were fully within their powers when they decided to rescind the trademarks, I don’t know how I feel about them getting involved.
First of all, there are a bunch of other teams with Native American-based mascots that could be deemed offensive.
I also worry that the USPTO’s involvement is going to turn this into a conservative-based debate about government trying to control businesses too much. I can already hear Fox’s 24-hour news cycle giving hundreds of counter-examples of other patents or trademarks that could be found offensive by any number of people.
And you know what? They would have a point. There may not be many organizations with the same visibility that the Redskins have, but the size of the organization has no bearing when it comes to the federal law prohibiting the USPTO from protecting offensive language.
Are you going to have religious people petitioning the USPTO to take away the trademarks any team with the word “devil” in their name? Or maybe a group of angry moms who believes that the name of their kids’ favorite band, Starf*cker, is offensive. Some people might even say the name I Fucking Love Science is offensive, and that’s one of the best educational sites out there these days.
Yes, most people would agree that those examples are probably a lot less offensive than the term “Redskin”, but the problem with setting precedents like this is that it will be very hard for the USPTO to tell the people in my counter-examples above that their complaints are not “offensive enough”.
Why? Because the individual who is offended gets to define how offensive something is, so the USPTO would have to consider every case brought by some angry person who was offended by a trademarked name.
I believe that all of these other arguments will totally detract from the real issue here: the fact that Native Americans have become so marginalized in our modern society that we even have to have a debate about this.
If somebody wanted to announce a new team called the Chinamen, or the Wetbacks, or the Niggers, or even the Rednecks, they wouldn’t even make it out of the press conference.
I’m not saying we should try to stamp out everything that’s offensive to anyone, I’m just saying we need to give our Native brothers the same basic respect we give other racial minorities in this country.
How the USPTO’s decision will ultimately affect that goal remains to be seen.
Read the original story from Think Progress here.