Commentary > SportsBiz
Redskins' last stand?
Team's trademark protections at risk as 11-year court battle over its name comes to a head.
August 29, 2003: 12:32 PM EDT
A weekly column by Chris Isidore, CNN/Money Senior Writer

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - Coming soon to the NFL -- the Washington Bureaucrats?

Or maybe the Washington Lobbyists?

Or the Wild Hogs, in honor of the city's true favorite sport -- grabbing for pork barrel dollars.

OK, probably none of these names will ever be found across the line of scrimmage from such traditional names as Giants, Cowboys or Bears. But someone with the Washington football team might want to start kicking around new names for the franchise.

That's because there's a decent chance that the Redskins' name could soon go the way of leather football helmets and 200-pound linemen.

A case now in U.S. District Court in Washington could strip the team of its trademark protections. The federal Trademark Trial and Appeal Board has already ruled against the team's trademark protections, finding that the name "may disparage Native Americans and may bring them into contempt or disrepute."

It's that 1999 decision that the team is now fighting to overturn. Both sides are asking Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly for a quick pre-trial decision, perhaps within weeks.

The courts can't order the team to change its name. But stripping trademark protections leaves the team essentially powerless to stop anyone from selling shirts, hats or other souvenirs bearing its logo or name.

The case was first filed by a number of Native American activists in 1992. Both sides express confidence they'll be the eventual winner.

"We have no plans to change the name because we're confident we will prevail in court," said team spokesman Karl Swanson. "We believe the name carries a meaning that is nothing but honorable."

He points to a 2002 survey by Sports Illustrated that found even Native Americans living on reservations favored teams keeping names like the Redskins, Indians and Braves by a slightly better than two-to-one margin, while 83 percent of Native Americans overall believed the names should be kept.

But Suzan Harjo, a writer, Native American activist and Washington, D.C., resident who brought the case, has no doubt the names are offensive to her and her people.

And she believes her side will not only win the case, but that the court victory will prompt other pro teams like the Atlanta Braves, Cleveland Indians and Chicago Blackhawks to change their names as well.

"This name is the king of the mountain. Everyone else will follow suit," she said.

She points out that teams have been dropping Native American names even without lawsuits -- the number of high school, college and pro teams with such names has gone from more than 3,000 in 1970 to only about 1,100 today. So far, no pro team has made the switch, however.

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One outside observer says despite the trademark board's decision, the case could still go either way, although he gives the Native Americans an edge.

"It's easier to defend the decision before the court than overturn it, but who knows what evidence the Redskins have come in with," said David Kera, a trademark attorney who has written on the case for the legal journal Trademark Reporter.

And Kera and other experts say they doubt the team would keep an unprotected name if they lose the court fight.

"They could lose and keep the name, but there are economic and public relations issues involved that complicate matters. (NFL commissioner) Paul Tagliabue would probably not want a team to use a trademark that has been adjudicated to be insulting to native Americans," said Kera.

Chicago sports marketing executive Marc Ganis said that the Redskins name is probably worth tens of millions to the team in intangible value, cementing loyalty among longtime fans, even though the team splits merchandise revenue with all the other NFL teams and probably would sell out on Sundays no matter what it is called.

But he also said that being forced to change its name wouldn't be the worst economic blow to the team if it's handled correctly.

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"In the short term, if they put together a comprehensive marketing campaign around the new name, they could see the sale of merchandise with the new name soar," said Ganis. "But there are risks for how they handle this. They could also come across as either being sensitive to these issues, or caving in. You don't know which way it will play out."  Top of page

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