Washington football team owner Dan Snyder urged the public a month ago to “focus on reality” rather than pester him for keeping a racial slur as his team’s name.
Here’s some reality for you, Dan. Since your patronizing comment, one-half the U.S. Senate has formally called on you to drop the name. It should have been a majority, but Virginia’s two senators shamefully refused to sign the letter. (Maryland’s two did the right thing.)
Then on Wednesday, 77 Native American tribes, Indian organizations and supporters wrote every National Football League player urging them to put their celebrity to good use by publicly supporting a name change.
The name’s critics also picked up a valuable assist from the National Basketball Association. It set a fine example by banning for life Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling after his racist views were made public in a leaked tape recording.
If the NBA can force an owner to sell a team, then surely the NFL can pressure Snyder to rename one.
The crescendo of opposition has drowned out Snyder’s effort to defuse the dispute by creating a charitable foundation to distribute items such as winter coats and earth-moving machinery to Indian tribes.
Of course, we all applaud Snyder for helping Native Americans.
But the events of recent weeks show the name controversy just keeps swelling, and there’s more to come.
A new article in a local law publication discloses a couple of fresh details about the name’s history and current legal status that will further discomfit Snyder.
Admittedly, the author of the article in The Washington Lawyer is hardly a disinterested party. He is attorney Jesse Witten, who represents a group of Indians who have filed a high-stakes lawsuit against the team in federal trademark court.
But the facts that Witten cites don’t appear to be in dispute.
In particular, he demolishes one of the team’s cherished myths about why the current name was selected in 1933.
At the time, the team was based in Boston and was called the Braves.
The team and NFL have claimed that then-owner George Preston Marshall picked the current name to honor the team’s Indian coach, William “Lone Star” Dietz, and some Indian players on the squad.
There’s a lot of controversy over whether Dietz was actually a Native American. Witten’s article doesn’t resolve that.
But it does refute the team’s contention that the name was selected to celebrate Dietz.
The proof is in a July 6, 1933, edition of the Hartford Courant, which Witten unearthed after the sports website MMQB tipped him off about it.
The edition includes a short Associated Press dispatch quoting Marshall saying: “The fact that we have in our head coach, Lone Star Dietz, an Indian, together with several Indian players, has not, as may be suspected, inspired me to select the name Redskins.”
Instead, Marshall explains, he gave up “Braves” to avoid confusion with a Boston professional baseball team of the same name. He apparently picked the Redskins name so he could keep the existing Native American logo.
Witten also reports that lawyers at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office have rejected at least 12 applications to register “redskins” as a trademark since 1993.
The reason: The word disparages Native Americans.
Some of the cases remain open, but the pattern does not bode well for the team in the current trademark case.
A panel of administrative law judges is preparing to issue a key ruling, which could come at any time. They’ll decide whether to cancel “Redskins” trademarks issued from 1967 to 1990.
(The team lost a virtually identical case before the trademark judges in the 1990s, only to win a reversal in federal court. An appellate court threw out the whole case on a technicality, which is why it’s up again.)
As I’ve written before, the judges might uphold the trademarks, on grounds that the word wasn’t disparaging before 1990 — even if it is today. Trademark law is weird that way.
But it seems reasonable to expect the Patent Office to be consistent.
The history of rejections is “extremely positive” for the Indian plaintiffs, according to Christine Haight Farley, who teaches trademark law at American University’s Washington College of Law.
“The rejections are very standard and are very well supported,” Farley said. “The examining attorneys cite numerous mainstream dictionaries . . . . The first and dominant meaning is a derogatory racial epithet.”
Even if Snyder loses the trademark decision, the appeals could last years. But a strong federal statement that the team name is offensive would be another significant morsel of “reality” for him to digest.
Robert McCartney is a columnist for The Washington Post.