Washington Redskins File Lawsuit Against Native Americans For Suggesting Team Name Is Offensive

It may seem like satire, but the Washington Redskins football team has filed a lawsuit against the five Native Americans who got the U.S. patent office to declare their trademark as “disparaging to Native Americans.” The team insists that the name honors Native Americans and anyone who says differently — including actual Native Americans — is wrong.

The legal action stems from the patent office’s decision to revoke the Redskin’s copyright from the team because, legally, a corporation can’t have a logo or name that is considered hate speech. The decision is disastrous for the football team, which makes a great deal of money by licensing their merchandise for sale to fans. So far the decision is being appealed and not in effect, but should the legal hurdles be passed, the Redskins organization would lose the right to enforce protections on their logos. In the not too distant future, anyone could make a shirt, bobblehead, poster, etc. with the Redskins name and logo on it, and the actual team could do nothing about it. In all likelihood, the team would be forced to change their name — if not because it’s the ethical thing to do, but rather an economic reality.

The team knows this as well as anybody, and consequently, they are fighting the ruling tooth-and-nail. It’s also why they have begun targeting the original copyright petitions in the hopes of scaring them off.

In a lawsuit directed not at the patent office, but at the individuals who filed the original complaint, the team claims that the five Native American plaintiffs are hurting their brand by raising an objection to it. According to lawyers for the organization, the football team is the real victim in all of this, and the Native Americans complaining are just causing trouble.

As Talking Points Memo explains:

The team, which has used Redskins as part of its name since 1933, says in court papers that the patent office board was wrong and that its trademarks are proper because the term was not offensive when the trademarks were registered. The team says canceling the trademarks, which were registered between 1967 and 1990, would violate the Constitution.

On the other side, the lawyers for the five Native Americans being sued point out that the organization’s beef is with the patent office, not five people who happen to get the ball rolling.

The football team has long insisted that their name is a celebration of Native culture. Unfortunately, the real history of the term is not so pretty.

The racist roots of the Redskins football team:

The Redskins got its start in the 1930s under the finances of George Preston Marshall. Marshall was a well-documented racist. He was a racist — even by his own time period’s standards – until the day he died. Even in the afterlife, he found a way to be a bit more racist. As The Daily Beast recounts, when Marshall died in 1969, he left his amassed fortune to a foundation in his honor. The foundation was meant to do good works, but there was one condition he insisted upon: the foundation could not use a single dollar on “any purpose which supports or employs the principle of racial integration in any form.”

It should come as no surprise to learn that the Redskins also have the dubious honor of being the last team in the NFL to racially integrate. They stayed “whites only” long past the point of being able to articulate any excuse for it other than virulent, seething hatred towards blacks. Even when they integrated in 1962 members of the Kennedy Administration had to personally go to the organization and behind-closed-doors plead with the team to stop being a national embarrassment. The racism was so deep that the President of the United States had to intervene.

It was Marshall who named the new football team in Washington “the Redskins,” and there was nothing in his life to suggest that a man like Marshall would do so to “honor” Native Americans. Marshall, the white supremacist, despised other races in ways that today are difficult to fathom.

The racist roots of the name “Redskins”:

As legend has it, Marshall learned that one of the coaches that worked for him was “thought to be” part Sioux. He changed the name of the team from the (arguably also offensive) “Braves” to the “Redskins” to “honor” that lineage. This doesn’t vindicate the name or make it any less racist. As we know, Marshall would be the last person to turn to when you wanted someone to weigh in on culturally sensitivity. It should also be noted that his coach wasn’t a “Native American;” he identified as white. He wasn’t even sure if he had any Native American blood in his family. To suggest that Marshall viewed this coach as a Native American to be honored is misleading. His family history was a bit of trivia, at best.

Meanwhile, the term was already firmly rooted in racism. Linguist Geoffrey Nunberg, writing for The Atlantic, attempted to trace the slur back to its origins. What he found was unequivocally disparaging:

Since the mid-19th century “redskin” has simply been the slang word the white man used for the Indian, and like all slang words, it was infused with the attitudes about the thing it names. In the passages from books and newspapers and the movie clips we provided the court to document the word’s history, the word is inevitably associated with contempt, derision, condescension, or sentimental paeans to the noble savage.

By the 1970s, the word was widely considered as a slur. All modern dictionaries label it as offensive or disparaging, just at they do the N-word—no journalist would begin a story, “Redskin astronaut John Herrington was honored last night…” Not all Indians object to the word, it’s true. In surveys, it’s offensive to 35 to 45 percent of Indians enrolled in tribes, but far fewer among the much larger—and rapidly growing—population who self-identify as Indians, many out of a spiritual affinity or a family legend about a Cherokee princess four generations back. Whatever the exact number, it offends enough people to put it off limits as a form of address. Any white person who uses the word injudiciously to a group of Indians can count on receiving a sufficient quota of angry stares.

So the football team now finds itself in the unenviable position of insisting that the name isn’t offensive, even to the actual people the name is said to be honoring. The situation has now gotten so surreal that the Redskins can sue Native Americans for finding a term specifically about them as offensive. It’s stubborn ignorance infused with fear of losing profits. And where is the honor in that?