What Allowing the Redskins Trademark Says and Doesn’t Say

The controversial trademark of the Washington Redskins may have legal protection, but its use is a poor reflection on the nation.
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Recently, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Matal v. Tam—a case involving a rock group, “The Slants,” that applied for and was not granted a trademark for their band’s name—held that the patent office does not have the power to reject trademarks simply because they are disparaging. The holding is celebrated by some as an affirmation of the first amendment and will likely result in a more controversial trademark, that of the Washington Redskins, similarly being allowed. For me, whether a trademark for the Redskins is allowed to be registered or not, says very little about what the logo means and what it says about the nation.

I grew up in a small part on the Navajo Nation, though I am a non-Indian. When I moved to Washington, D.C. more than a decade ago, I was shocked by the amount of Redskins paraphernalia I saw all around me. It hasn’t gotten less shocking with time. If anything, progress that has been made nationwide on gay rights, the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the attention to gender pay inequality over the past 10 years has made me even more aware that surprisingly little has changed when it comes to the most offensive logo in professional sports. People like to focus on Redskins’ owner Dan Snyder and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, making the logo about their decisions and not about the collective decision to continue to support such racist imagery.

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The fact that the Supreme Court is now likely to quietly permit the Redskins trademark does not tell me what type of person I am dealing with, but their choice to put on a Redskins baseball hat certainly does. Ten years ago I would chalk up many of the t-shirts, sweatshirts, and hats to ignorance of the problematic aspects of the logo. But then, for a brief moment, there was a lot of organization by Indian leaders, including those from the National Congress of American Indians and the Oneida Indian Nation of New York, aimed highlighting the racism of the logo. Now when I see the logo—on a helmet sitting in my favorite restaurant, on the hat of my son’s physical education teacher, or plastered on the back of cars across the greater D.C. area—I know ignorance is not the explanation. Instead, the choice to sport the logo can only be attributed to indifference or racism and is most accurately a combination of both.

If confronted, most fans would likely argue that they are not racist, it just isn’t that big a deal. But imagine, for only a moment, if similar imagery for any other ethnic group was used by a professional sports team: indifference would not be an adequate justification and it isn’t here either. I love D.C. I love the museums, the walks along the C&O Canal, the ready availability of great Salvadoran, Thai, Indian, and American food. But I do get tired of the unquestioned racism and hatred so casually directed against Native Americans.

While the Matal v. Tam case indicates that the U.S. Supreme Court will likely come down on the side of allowing the Redskins’ logo to continue to have legal protection, just because the team gets trademark protection does not mean it is right to wear the logo. School districts, private employers, and even individuals should make it clear that they do not support nor will they tolerate racism, no matter how blasé the logo is treated. Just because the Redskins’ logo is part of the fabric of the NFL and of the nation does not mean that it should not be challenged, and just because the Supreme Court says something is permitted does not mean it is right.

Ezra Rosser is a Professor at American University Washington College of Law, where he teaches Federal Indian Law, Property, and Poverty Law. A non-Indian who grew up in part on the Navajo Nation, his research focuses on poverty and on tribal economic development. His research can be found at www.wcl.american.edu/faculty/rosser.