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Why the San Francisco Chronicle Stopped Using the Term ‘Redskins’

| June 18, 2014
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(Photo: Keith Allison/Flickr)

(Photo: Keith Allison/Flickr)

Pro-Football Inc., aka the Washington Redskins to many NFL fans and “that football team from Washington” to others, today lost what could end up being an important battle in the fight over the controversial nickname. From AP:

A federal trademark board ruled Wednesday that the Washington Redskins nickname is “disparaging of Native Americans” and that the team’s trademark protections should be canceled, a decision that applies new financial and political pressure on the team to change its name.

The 2-1 ruling from the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board came in a case that has been working its way through legal channels for more than two decades. It doesn’t force the team to abandon the name, but it comes at a time of increasing criticism of team owner Dan Snyder from political, religious and sports figures who say it’s time for a change.

The Redskins quickly announced that they will appeal, and the cancellation for trademark protections will be on hold while the matter makes its way through the courts. That process could take years.

Here’s a fact sheet on the case from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. A statement from the team’s trademark attorney said the team was confident it would win on appeal.

Even if the decision is upheld, the team won’t be legally required to change its name, but it will lose the protections afforded by registration of the contested trademarks. That could end up costing it a lot of money in merchandise sales. As AP puts it, Washington would “lose a significant portion of its ability to protect the financial interests connected to it. If others printed the name on sweatshirts or other apparel without permission, it would become more cumbersome to go after such groups.” (Not everyone agrees with this analysis, however.)

‘I don’t think there are very many people that can debate effectively that it’s not a patently racist term.’— Audrey Cooper,
San Francisco Chronicle managing editor

And if you’re wondering, trademark law prohibits registration of terms that “may disparage… persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols, or bring them into contempt, or disrepute.” Related to that standard, ThinkProgress has a post called 7 Things That Convinced The U.S. Patent Office To Cancel The Redskins Trademark.

One part of the mounting pressure on the team is that some reporters and media outlets refuse to use the name Redskins. The San Francisco Chronicle joined that group last fall, and after the announcement, KQED’s Mina Kim spoke about the decision with Chronicle Managing Editor Audrey Cooper. She said one of the paper’s sports columnists first suggested considering whether use of the word was appropriate. The issue was taken up by the paper’s style council, which then recommended avoiding the term whenever possible, short of obscuring clarity.

“If the story is about the controversy, obviously we’ll have to print the word so that people will know what we’re talking about,” Cooper said. “Absent that, we think it’s very easy to use the word ‘Washington’ to describe who, for example, won a football game.”

Cooper said she considered the word offensive. “I don’t think there are very many people that can debate effectively that it’s not a patently racist term. Not everyone has to be personally offended by a word to make it a racial slur.” She said the newsroom staff was almost unanimously in support of the decision. “When the announcement went out to our staff, I think in the first five minutes I received about 30 emails that said it’s about time.”

When asked whether the paper considered survey results last year that showed 90 percent of Native Americans did not find the terms offensive, Cooper said, “We don’t make word decisions based on popularity contests. We have decided we believe that it is a racial term.”

You can listen to the entire interview here:

Full AP report:

WASHINGTON (AP) — A federal trademark board ruled Wednesday that the Washington Redskins nickname is “disparaging of Native Americans” and that the team’s trademark protections should be canceled, a decision that applies new financial and political pressure on the team to change its name.

The 2-1 ruling from the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board came in a case that has been working its way through legal channels for more than two decades. It doesn’t force the team to abandon the name, but it comes at a time of increasing criticism of team owner Dan Snyder from political, religious and sports figures who say it’s time for a change.

The Redskins quickly announced that they will appeal, and the cancellation for trademark protections will be on hold while the matter makes its way through the courts. That process could take years.

It was the second time the board had issued an opinion on the case. A similar ruling from 1999 was overturned on a technicality in 2003.

“We’ve seen this story before,” Redskins attorney Bob Raskopf said. “And just like last time, today’s ruling will have no effect at all on the team’s ownership of and right to use the Redskins name and logo. We are confident we will prevail once again.”

The ruling involves six uses of the “Redskins” name trademarked by the team from 1967 to 1990. If it stands, it would mean the team can continue to use the name, but it would lose a significant portion of its ability to protect the financial interests connected to it. If others printed the name on sweatshirts or other apparel without permission, it would become more cumbersome to go after such groups.

Courts overturned the board’s previous ruling in part because the plaintiffs waited too long to voice their opposition after the original trademarks were issued. The case was relaunched in 2006 by a younger group of Native Americans who had recently become adults and therefore would not have able to file a case earlier. The hearing was held in March of last year.

The chorus of critics against the use of the name has grown over the past year.

On Saturday, a major sector of the United Church of Christ voted to urge its 40,000 members to boycott the Redskins. Half of the U.S. Senate recently wrote letters to the NFL urging a change, one of the letters stating that “racism and bigotry have no place in professional sports.” D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray suggested Wednesday the name will almost certainly have to change if the team ever wants to build a new stadium in the city.

Snyder, who has vowed repeatedly never to change the name, declined comment as he walked off the field after a minicamp practice Wednesday. Redskins players have mostly avoided the topic, aware of a potential conflict because they are employed by the team.

“Our job as players is to focus on what we can on this field day-in and day-out and let the legal people take care of that stuff,” quarterback Robert Griffin III said after practice. “And when it’s the right time, then we can voice whatever it is we know about the situation.”

The Redskins have responded to critics by creating an Original Americans Foundation to give financial support to Native American tribes. Suzan Shown Harjo, a lead figure in the trademark case, called the foundation “somewhere between a PR assault and bribery.”

Supporters of a name change quickly hailed the decision.

“Daniel Snyder may be the last person in the world to realize this,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said on the Senate floor, “but it is just a matter of time until he is forced to do the right thing.”

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