Thursday, September 17, 2009

High court vs. name 'Redskins'? Maybe

It was a small story, one that didn't lead the nightly newscast the other day, create giant headlines in daily newspapers or prompt much discussion. To some, it had grown long ago into a wearisome tale; it has mostly drawn yawns from people who aren’t Native Americans.

For they have the biggest stake in this fight.

Pride fuels their fight, which centers on how others value Native Americans and their heritage. They have fought to validate that heritage, working on several fronts to erase the term “Redskins” from the sports lexicon.

They have won a round or two, but failures aplenty have followed their successes, turning what should have been an easy decision into what amounts to a legal ping-pong ball.

Now, the seven plaintiffs behind this latest battle have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear their story, which posits the argument the term "Redskin" is so abasing of their people that it should not be trademarked.

In 1999, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office sided with Native Americans. Theirs was only a temporary victory, however. For the Redskins owners didn’t relent. Using their financial muscle, they took the fight to federal court, where they have won a series of victories.

An appeals court reaffirmed last May that the plaintiffs had waited too long to file their lawsuit, a legal technicality that didn’t address the merits of the case.

The next round put the issue back into the hands of the plaintiffs, who decided to ask "the court of last resort" to hear the case. If the high court accepts the case, it will end the legal wrangling over “Redskins.”

I’m not a legal scholar, no matter what yardstick you use to measure scholarship. But I can say that I hope the high court sees something unseemly about letting people slap trademarks on racist terms.

To strip “Redskins” of its trademark, the court would essentially take its commercial value away, and without that commercial value, the Redskins organization would have no choice but to find a new name for its NFL team or risk seeing millions of dollars leak from its revenue streams.

The plaintiffs tried reasoning. They couldn’t persuade the Redskins ownership into dropping the offensive nickname, nor could they shame the team's fans into pushing for the change. Native Americans were left to try whatever else might work.

Periodically, they have held protests outside the stadium (and, elsewhere, over grotesque images like “Chief Wahoo”). They stir up a fuss, although their protests lose momentum after a while; they’ve been unable to find allies to stand tall behind their cause.

And this might be their last round, one I hope the court considers.

I see no reason the Washington Redskins can’t find a better nickname. The Washington Wizards abandoned “Bullets” years ago, and the organization survived the change without losing a piece of its history.

The Redskins, a franchise as financially stable as any in sports, can thrive no matter what team nickname appears on logos. But changing a nickname shouldn’t have to come because of protests and boycotts and lawsuits.

A simple acceptance that the days of debasing a race are behind this country is all anybody needs to know if he wants to see what Native Americans have been fighting about all these years.

(Photo of FedEx Stadium by Kevin Coles)


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