The fight began nearly 25 years ago, an epic legal tussle over a single word: Redskins.
But on Thursday, after protests outside NFL stadiums, vows by sports journalists never to use the word and even former president Barack Obama urging team owner Daniel Snyder to change the name, the battle petered out.
On Thursday, the five Native Americans fighting the NFL team over its trademark registrations called it quits in federal appeals court. So did the Justice Department, which on Wednesday declared the team the winner.
The Native Americans and the Justice Department didn’t have much of a choice. On June 19, in a separate case involving an Asian rock band, the Supreme Court declared that a key section of federal law banning trademarks that “may disparage” people was a violation of the First Amendment. It was this section of the 1946 Lanham Act that the Native Americans relied upon to argue that the Redskins should be stripped of its trademark registrations.
But once the Supreme Court ruled that the disparagement clause was not constitutional, the Justice Department and the Native Americans, led by Amanda Blackhorse, a Navajo from Arizona, had little legal standing to move forward.
“There’s no more challenge to make,” said Jesse Witten, an attorney representing the Native Americans, who view the team name as a deeply offensive slur.
Even though his clients lost, Witten pointed to the publicity their campaign raised.
“There’s the legal case and then there’s the cause,” he said. “It was a galvanizing force that caused people to pay attention to the cause.”
Blackhorse did not immediately return a message from The Washington Post on Thursday.
Blackhorse wasn’t the first to wage a campaign against the name. One of the earliest points of contention came on March 29, 1972, when a delegation of Native American leaders met with then-Redskins president Edward Bennett Williams, lobbying him to change the name. Though he didn’t do so, the team scrapped “Scalp ‘em” from its fight song, replacing it with “Beat ‘em.” The team also got rid of the cheerleaders’ black braided wigs.
It would be another 20 years until Native American activists took their first legal action against the team. On Sept. 10, 1992, seven Native American activists led by Suzan Shown Harjo filed a petition with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, asking that the team’s six registrations be revoked.
Seven years later, the patent and trademark office’s appeals board ruled in Harjo’s favor. But the team never quit fighting to defend itself, arguing that most Native Americans were not offended by the name and that the activists hadn’t proved that the name was widely considered a slur.
As the Redskins and Harjo battled in court, a 2004 poll by the Annenberg Public Policy Center seemed to back up the team’s argument: 9 in 10 Indians did not find the name offensive. Two years later, Blackhorse and four other Native Americans filed their own petition with the trademark office seeking to revoke the team’s registrations.
By 2009, a federal appeals court tossed out Harjo’s case on a technical matter, but the Redskins still had to contend with Blackhorse. In May 2013, Snyder promised he would never change the name. “It’s that simple. NEVER – you can use caps,” he told USA Today. Obama weighed in, telling the Associated Press that if he were the owner, “I’d think about changing it.”
In June 2014, the patent and trademark office ruled in Blackhorse’s favor, scheduling the cancellation of the team’s registrations. The team appealed, but a U.S. District Court judge in Alexandria sided with Blackhorse, questioning why the team chose the name in the first place when Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defined the word as “often contemptuous” as early as 1898.
U.S. District Judge Gerald Bruce Lee also said that the Lanham Act’s disparagement clause did not violate the team’s First Amendment rights.
The Redskins disagreed, taking their case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in Richmond, where their fight stalled out.
It turned out that an Asian rock band called the Slants was also fighting the Lanham Act’s disparagement clause, and the band’s case made it all the way to the Supreme Court. The patent and trademark office had denied the Slants the trademark registration because it viewed the name as derogatory to Asians. But the band argued that they were reclaiming the epithet.
Now that the Supreme Court has ruled in the Slants’ favor – and that the Native Americans have conceded defeat in their own case – no other legal challenge stands in the Redskins’ way.