NFL Football Team Gets to Keep Racist Trademark

May 21, 2009

While the NCAA has created a policy to encourage school sports teams with offensive Native American imagery and mascots to retire them or get approval from local tribes, the NFL has no plans to make similar changes.

On Friday, The U.S. Court of Appeals issued its decision to allow The Washington Redskins to keep their team name. The dispute began 17 years ago, when seven Native American activists filed a suit with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, claiming that the NFL team's trademark is racially offensive. In 1999, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board ruled on the side of the activists, so the team's corporate owner appealed to federal court.

The Court of Appeals did not address racism or racist representation in its decision; instead, it concluded that the group of activists waited too long after the trademark was created to file a lawsuit.

Professional football teams rarely change their names, fearing economic loss and backlash from fans. A survey put out by Sports Illustrated in 2002 shows that the majority of Native Americans don't believe mascots and sports imagery contribute to racial discrimination against them. Apparently, that is supposed to be an argument for keeping these images.

Perhaps there isn't a direct correlation between racial discrimination against Native Americans and the 'Redskins' trademark. But what about the thousands of people in the United States who are completely ignorant about the realities of Native American communities and histories and base their knowledge on one or two stereotyped images?

It reminds me a study Beverly Tatum refers to in her book "Why are all the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria" in which young children were asked to draw a picture of a Native American. When most of the students didn't know what a Native American was, they were asked draw a picture of an Indian. Although the children had never interacted with Native Americans, they all drew images - where did they get their ideas from? Cartoons, and more specifically, Disney's Peter Pan (Tatum, 4).

Another point: there have been instances where team names have been changed. In fact, Washington's NBA team became the Washington Wizards after their previous name, the Bullets, was considered an image that had too many violent implications. American sportswriter Michael Silver has a great piece over at Yahoo about this in relation to the 'Redskins' debate.

It's troubling to think that teams are willing to hold onto racist emblems in order to preserve the tradition of franchises. There should be a commitment and responsibility to eradicating this sort of representation in every industry.

Finally, I'll leave you with a link that is a bit bizarre but a very interesting read: Above the Law posted the email correspondence that circulated at Quinn Emanuel, the firm that defended the NFL team, after their victory.

Nina Jacinto is a freelance blogger living in the Bay Area whose writing focuses on issues of race, gender, and media representation. She's a graduate of Pomona College and loves South Asian diaspora narratives, bargain shopping, and the Internet.