The Washington [Insert Name Here]

Last week, the US Patent and Trademark Office ("USPTO") canceled six federal trademarks belonging to the Washington Redskins because the marks were "disparaging to Native Americans." In evaluating what this means to the long-standing controversy over the team's name, let's start at the very beginning (a little history lesson never hurt anyone).

In 1932, the Washington Redskins began as the "Boston Braves," named after the Boston Braves baseball team whose stadium the football team used. The following year, the team moved to Fenway Park and changed its name to the "Boston Redskins." "Redskins" was reportedly chosen in honor of then-coach William Henry "Lone Star" Dietz who claimed to be of Native American descent. Historians have strongly contested Dietz's claims, saying Dietz was a German American from Wisconsin who wanted to play football as an Indian to cash in on the fame afforded to players like Jim Thorpe. In 1937, the team moved to Washington D.C. and became the team we know today - the "Washington Redskins."

Thirty years later, the Washington Redskins registered its first trademarks with the USPTO, which included the Redskins name. Simply put, a 'trademark' is how you know what you are buying and who you are buying it from. The shape of the bottle of your favorite beer, the name on the bottle, the design of the label on the bottle, even the color of the bottle itself (thank you Cristian Louboutin and your red soles, which look so fantastic on me) may all enjoy trademark protection. Reportedly, Native Americans began publically challenging the team's trademarks that same year. The four decade long battle has turned legal over the past two, with this latest ruling being just another step in the fight.

This most recent decision was actually the second time the USPTO canceled the Redskins' trademark registrations. In 1992, seven Native Americans filed a petition challenging the marks. After seven years of intense litigation, the USPTO held, just as it did last week, that the Redskins' trademarks were, "disparaging to Native Americans." That means that in the 1990s a whole heap of work went into determining what Dan Snyder will still not admit today - "Redskin" is an offensive term. That decision was appealed and eventually reversed in 2003, but the reversal had little to do with whether the marks were, in fact, disparaging (the reversal was not on the merits, but because, simply put, there was an unreasonable delay that prejudiced the Redskins).

So, here we are today back in a very similar position - six Native Americans petitioning the USPTO, and the USPTO canceling the Redskins' trademark registrations. What does this latest ruling mean? Legally, it does not mean much. First, this latest decision will be appealed through the court system, and may take years to resolve. While that resolution is being sought, the cancellation of the Redskins' trademarks will be suspended. Second, even if the final decision affirms the USPTO's ruling, the Redskins' trademarks will still be protected by the common law. Federally registering trademarks is not necessary for trademark protection (ie. you can still sue someone who uses your trademark even if you have not federally registered it). Because the Washington Redskins have had exclusive use of the team name for years, it will be easy for the organization to retain legal protection regardless of whether its trademarks are federally registered (Dan Snyder will still sue you if you open up your own "Official Redskins Bar").

Although this latest USPTO ruling means little in the grand scheme of things, it has given us a well-researched and well-argued legal commentary in favor of a team name change (not unlike this blog if I do say so myself). In its ruling, the USPTO made it clear that although the organization did not intend to disparage Native Americans with its team name, the issue is not whether the Redskins intended to, but only whether the Redskins did, in fact, disparage Native Americans. The USPTO also told us that the determination of whether the term "Redskin" is disparaging is not based on the opinion of the population at large, but only on Native Americans alone. The board even provided us with, approximately, one hundred pages of discussion of the term "Redskin" and its complicated and controversial history (consider it homework).

Although this decision will not lead to an immediate name change, it is only a mater of time. If it is not legal pressure, league pressure, or societal pressure that forces Dan Snyder to eventually change the team's name, it will be the ultimate pressure that will change the tide - financial. When the third most valuable franchise in the NFL, according to Forbes, begins losing sponsors because of the public outcry, the pressure will be too great. It will become more valuable to partner with the Native American organizations than to fight against them (I can't help but think how unlikely it would be for this to happen in South Florida because of the sponsorship money our local Native American tribes provide our local sports teams - a team down here would feel significant pressure to change its name immediately). With his stubbornness, Dan Snyder is missing a valuable marketing opportunity to unveil a new team name backed by new merchandise sales and new sponsors (the "Washington Pigskins" has a ring to it). One day, the sports world will continue on without "Redskins" on the field in D.C., just as it did without bullets on the hardwood in Washington, or the devil on the diamond in Tampa (the Washington Bullets became the Washington Wizards, and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays became the Tampa Bay Rays in the face of public scrutiny).