Headlines, Human Rights, Indigenous Rights, North America

U.S.: Supreme Court Punts on “Redskins” Case

Matthew Berger

WASHINGTON, Nov 16 2009 (IPS) - The ongoing drive to purge derogatory American Indian nicknames and mascots from U.S. sports and schools took a minor hit Monday when the U.S. Supreme Court declined, without comment, to hear an appeal challenging the trademark protecting the name of the National Football League’s Washington Redskins.

Native groups, headed by Cherokee-Muskogee lawyer Suzan Shown Harjo, say the name is disparaging and propagates negative stereotypes regarding American Indians. Though they feel the court dropped the ball in this case, the effort to tackle such names, including the Redskins’, will go on.

“We do a lot of Supreme Court cases, and they decline a lot of them. The case isn’t over,” National Congress of American Indians’ general counsel John Dosset told IPS Monday.

The U.S. football team has held the controversial moniker since 1933, when the Boston Braves were renamed the Boston Redskins in honour of their Sioux head coach William “Lone Star” Dietz. The team moved to Washington, D.C., in 1937.

The case had hinged on the question of the whether plaintiff groups had challenged the trademark in a timely enough manner. The Redskins first got a trademark on their name in 1967, but the lawsuit challenging it was only filed in 1992.

In May, a U.S. Court of Appeals decision upheld a 2003 decision by a U.S. District Court that the suit was filed too long after the initial trademark was issued – a decision based on the doctrine of laches, which prohibits claims that should have been made much earlier. The district court decision had overturned the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s 1999 decision to cancel the Redskins’ trademarks.

Monday, in a rare victory for the last-place Redskins, the Supreme Court let the Appeals Court ruling stand.

The groups said they lobbied team owners for decades to voluntarily change the name prior to filing a lawsuit.

A group of law professors had filed amicus briefs on the laches question, arguing that timeliness is irrelevant when a trademark is disparaging to a part of the population.

They were joined by a group of psychologists who spoke to the negative effects of nicknames like “redskins” being used by colleges and sports teams. Dossett pointed out how there has been some research done on the impact of disparaging nicknames on Native American students.

With Monday’s pass by the Supreme Court, the 17-year-old suit has ended on a technicality. The court faced only the question of whether too much time had elapsed since the trademark’s issuance, rather than whether the term “Redskins” or the associated logo is offensive.

“They’ve never really ruled on the question of whether or not the name is derogatory,” says Dossett. “They’ve been ruling on the question of whether of not the case is timely.”

“In the big picture,” he notes, “the movement is winning.”

Since the early 1970s, the NCAI and other groups have been involved in opposing terms that refer to American Indians or their culture.

Dossett says hundreds of schools have changed their names in that time, including dozens of colleges.

While it cannot directly ban certain nicknames, current National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) policy prevents schools with American Indian-related names from participating in championship or playoff games.

In 2005, the NCAA listed 18 schools that would not be allowed participate in postseason play until they changed the “hostile and abusive” American Indian mascots or images they used.

Florida State University – the Seminoles – and the University of Utah – the Utes – were given exemptions from the ban since they had worked with the local tribes to gain their permission and to ensure the names and images were used in a respectful manner. Utah had been known as the “Redskins” until the 1970s.

The question of respect versus insult is a major theme in the sports mascot debate. While the teams of Florida State might be squarely in the realm of respectfulness, other teams, like the Redskins and Major League Baseball’s Cleveland Indians, have a much harder time making the case that their mascots are anything but derogatory.

The Cleveland Indians’ primary logo, called Chief Wahoo, depicts the bright red face of a cartoon caricature American Indian with red feather, headband, toothy smile and large nose.

It has come under fire for years, but the Indians have refused to move on.

The mainstream press makes it seem like efforts such as this are the work of a small group of activists, says Dossett, “but really we have the support of a broad majority of Native Americans throughout the country”.

The movement to shift away from American Indian nicknames at college really picked up steam in the 1970s, when student groups or civil rights organisations called for change. In that decade Stanford University, St. Bonaventure University, The College of William & Mary and Dartmouth College all dropped the Indian moniker.

The University of Louisiana-Monroe, Arkansas State University and Southeast Missouri State University are among the universities that have changed their nicknames from “Indians” in the past couple years.

The sports teams of Miami University, in Ohio, were known as the “Redskins” until 1997.

Back in Washington, the National Basketball Association’s Washington Bullets switched to the “Wizards” in 1997 when owner Abe Pollin felt “Bullets” was too violent a name.

Out at FedEx Field, though, Redskins’ owner Dan Snyder refuses to budge – for now.

The case the Supreme Court declined to hear Monday was only one of two cases challenging the name.

A group of other, younger American Indians filed basically the same claim two years ago. Dossett hopes their age will mean the suit will not get hung up by the same technicality since they could not possibly have filed earlier. The plaintiffs are aged 18 to 24.

Their case had been on hold until the previous one, which ended Monday, ran its course.

Neither case, however, would have mandated a name change. They only seek to strip “redskins” of its trademark.

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