Though the Washington Redskins have faced down past legal challenges to their controversial name, the NFL team's defiant battle took a new twist Wednesday against a backdrop of growing political opposition.
Efforts to force a change of the Redskins nickname gained momentum when the U.S. Patent Office canceled the team's trademark on its name, terming it "disparaging of Native Americans."
The effect of the 2-1 ruling is symbolic for the time being, because the Redskins can retain their trademark while appealing the decision. But it could ultimately undermine the team's ability to prevent outside parties from using the name without permission — for merchandise or other commercial ventures. Even if the ruling stands, the Redskins would not be forced to change their name.
The controversy has intensified over the last year, with Redskins owner Daniel Snyder adamantly saying he will not change the name despite being urged by powerful lawmakers, including President Barack Obama.
U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, has been one of the sharpest critics. “Daniel Snyder may be the last person in the world to realize this, but it’s just a matter of time until he is forced to do the right thing and change the name,” Reid said Wednesday on the Senate floor.
Snyder did not respond to questions from reporters at the team's training facility in Ashburn, Va., on Wednesday morning.
The Redskins faced a similar ruling in 1999, but it was overturned in 2003 when a federal appeals judge said the plaintiffs had waited too many years to file the complaint. Wednesday's decision came in response to a 2006 complaint filed by a group of five younger Native Americans.
Amanda Blackhorse, one of the plaintiffs, called it "a great victory for Native Americans and for all Americans."
"I hope this ruling brings us a step closer to that inevitable day when the name of the Washington football team will be changed," she said in a statement.
Alfred W. Putnam Jr., chairman of Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP, the law firm that filed the case, called the decision a "milestone victory that will serve as an historic precedent."
But the Redskins downplayed the ruling as a repeat of the earlier, unsuccessful case.
"We are confident we will prevail once again, and that the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board's divided ruling will be overturned on appeal," said Bob Raskopf, an attorney for the team. "This case is no different than an earlier case, where the board canceled the Redskins' trademark registrations, and where a federal district court disagreed and reversed the board."
Raskopf pointed to several lines from the lone dissenting opinion on Wednesday's decision, in which board member Marc Bergsman questioned the plaintiffs' evidence of damage to the Native American community.
"The evidence in the current claim is virtually identical to the evidence a federal judge decided was insufficient more than 10 years ago," Raskopf said. "We expect the same ultimate outcome here."
But there are several reasons to think the case might not play out the same way, said Will Hubbard, co-director of the intellectual property program at the University of Baltimore School of Law.
Hubbard said the case is less likely to collapse on procedural grounds than the 1999 version. "It appears they won't have the same problem, because they've crafted the case more effectively," he said.
That means the Redskins would more likely have to win an appeal by arguing the plaintiffs have presented insufficient evidence of the name's power to offend.
"They will try to argue that these are isolated examples and not reflective of a larger consensus," Hubbard said. "The problem for the Redskins is there seems to be a fairly substantial amount of evidence here."
Even if they lose an appeal, however, the Redskins would have several legal avenues to continue operating under the same name. Most of their logos, for example, are protected by separate copyright laws that actually carry harsher penalties for illicit merchandisers. They could also use state trademark laws to protect their intellectual property.
"If they want to continue operating the same way for awhile, there are many claims they can make," Hubbard said. "I don't expect to see a sudden proliferation of knock-off shirts or anything like that."