Skip to main content

Is end near for Redskins? It's about time

By Simon Moya-Smith
updated 8:13 PM EDT, Wed June 18, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Simon Moya-Smith wonders if the latest trademark ruling could be the beginning of the end
  • But a similar 1999 ruling was overturned on appeal
  • Without trademark protection, he says Redskins T-shirts and schwag could be freely sold
  • Moya-Smith: Owners and some fans continue to fight for the privilege to use the racial slur

Editor's note: Simon Moya-Smith is a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation and a writer living in New York. He has a master's degree from the Columbia University School of Journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @Simonmoyasmith. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.

(CNN) -- Wednesday's decision by the U.S. Patent Office to repeal six federal trademarks of the Washington Redskins on the grounds that the name is "disparaging to Native Americans" is, of course, a victory for the Native American community and our allies.

Yet we have been here before.

In 1999, Suzan Shown Harjo, who is Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee, won a battle against the Washington Redskins after a three-judge panel of the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board ruled against the team and removed its trademark protections. But that decision was later appealed and the ruling overturned, and the team regained its trademarks.

That is why today's decision is certainly worth celebrating, but not without a sense of hesitation. Should team owner Dan Snyder's appeal to the U.S. Patent Office fail, then we can celebrate even louder -- and even louder when the name is changed.

Simon Moya-Smith
Simon Moya-Smith

Still, Snyder's trademark attorney Bob Raskopf is adamant that the team will, again, emerge victorious and win its appeal.

"We've seen this before," Raskopf said in a press release on Wednesday. "And just like last time, today's ruling will have no effect at all on the team's ownership of and right to use the Redskins name and logo."

But what Raskopf hasn't seen before is a proliferation of voices opposing the team name.

Members of Congress, local D.C. officials, celebrities, media commentators and even former Washington Redskins like cornerback Champ Bailey have spoken out against the team name and urged Snyder to relent and change the name.

Bailey even likened the team name to the n-word.

Redskins trademark canceled
RGIII helps ask special student to prom
Redskins Twitter campaign backfires

"When you hear a Native American say that 'Redskins' is degrading, it's almost like the N-word for a black person," Bailey told USA Today Sports.

On Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, speaking on the capitol floor in response to the trademark repeal, said, "This is extremely important to Native Americans all over the country that they no longer use this name. It's racist. The writing is on the wall."

The Washington team and the NFL, of course, realize the cancellation of the trademark protection hits them where it hurts -- their pocketbook, which was the whole point of the case brought by Amanda Blackhorse, a Navajo, who was one of five plaintiffs to contest the team's federal trademark protection. If the team won't change the name voluntarily then it will be changed by force, not unlike how the team was forced to integrate black football players in the 1960s.

Now, without trademark protection, anyone can make and sell Washington Redskins shirts, jerseys, hats and all manner of schwag without the legal muscle to hinder imitation Redskins products.

Yet this issue is bigger than the Washington Redskins. It's bigger than the slur alone. This is a campaign of dignity and humanity. The Washington team may be threatened by the very real possibility that it will have to change its name in the near future, but that doesn't let the Cleveland Indians off the hook, or the Atlanta Braves, for that matter.

But they're feeling the pressure, too. Native Americans also are working to remove the Cleveland Indian logo of Chief Wahoo.

This movement is about the dehumanization of Native Americans on every level -- not just in sports, but in media and Hollywood, as well. This is about respect and about the mental stability of our children.

Empirical study has proven that Indian mascots harm the mental health of Native American children. They report to have low self-esteem, a limited sense of social worth and do not believe they can accomplish as much as students from other racial and ethnic backgrounds.

These scientific studies do routinely fall on deaf ears, and somehow people, even prominent ones, continue to fight for the privilege to use the racial slur.

Al Michaels, the NBC Sunday Night Football sportscaster, recently defended the use of the name and called the controversy "nuts."

"I mean, for 70-some odd years this was a zero issue, and then it became an issue," he said. But that's not quite accurate.

Harjo and even the late American Indian Movement leader Russell Means fought against the name as well as all manner of Indian mascotry for decades. But with the continuing ubiquity of the Web and social media, the Native American voice has amplified.

Just because someone couldn't hear our elders in the 1960s and 1970s raging against the name doesn't mean they weren't responding to this form of racism as well as fighting for our rights as indigenous peoples.

I was asked recently why the mascot issue matters more than the epidemic of poverty on reservations. Or why we are bothered more by a word than the high school dropout rate of Native American students, which is the highest in the country.

It's not that names matter more, it's that when we talk about death rates, rape and epidemics in Indian country we don't always get a response. But when we interrupt sports? We always get a response.

Blackhorse, the plaintiff in the previous case, Blackhorse et al v. Pro-Football Inc., told USA Today what she would say to Washington owner Daniel Snyder.

"I'd ask him, 'Would you dare call me a redskin, right here, to my face?' " she says. "And I suspect that, no, he would not do that."

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:27 PM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
The ability to manipulate media and technology has increasingly become a critical strategic resource, says Jeff Yang.
updated 11:17 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Today's politicians should follow Ronald Reagan's advice and invest in science, research and development, Fareed Zakaria says.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Artificial intelligence does not need to be malevolent to be catastrophically dangerous to humanity, writes Greg Scoblete.
updated 10:05 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Historian Douglas Brinkley says a showing of Sony's film in Austin helped keep the city weird -- and spotlighted the heroes who stood up for free expression
updated 8:03 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Tanya Odom that by calling only on women at his press conference, the President made clear why women and people of color should be more visible in boardrooms and conferences
updated 6:27 PM EST, Sat December 27, 2014
When oil spills happen, researchers are faced with the difficult choice of whether to use chemical dispersants, authors say
updated 1:33 AM EST, Thu December 25, 2014
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
updated 6:12 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
updated 8:36 AM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
updated 2:14 PM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
updated 3:27 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
updated 10:35 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
updated 7:57 AM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
updated 11:29 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
updated 4:15 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
updated 1:11 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
updated 1:08 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
updated 1:53 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
updated 3:19 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
updated 5:39 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT