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 12:24 PM EDT, Sat September 20, 2014
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
updated 7:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
updated 5:47 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
updated 11:44 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
updated 11:01 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
updated 9:57 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
updated 11:47 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
updated 10:27 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
updated 10:48 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
updated 8:34 PM EDT, Wed September 17, 2014
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT