Washington Redskins sue Native Americans for calling their name racist

Washington Redskins sue Native Americans for calling their name racist
The Washington Redskins can sue the Native Americans responsible for the team losing its trademark, a federal judge said on Friday. The group had asked for the suit to be dismissed, saying they have no financial stake in the outcome of the ruling.

US District Judge Gerald Bruce Lee heard arguments Friday from both the team and the five Native Americans named in the suit as to whether the case should be thrown out. In June, the US Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) ruled that six trademark registrations on the team’s name should be canceled. Navajo activist Amanda Blackhorse along with Phillip Glover, Marcus Briggs-Cloud, Jillian Pappan and Courtney Tsotigh filed the petition with the PTO, claiming the name was "disparaging to Native Americans" when registered. In response, the team sued the group, asking for a chance to defend its name in court.

A lawyer for the Native Americans, Jesse Witten, argued that his clients should be left out of the dispute and that the lawsuit against them should be dismissed, as they aren’t qualified to be defendants in the trademark case because they don’t have a legal or economic motive to control the Redskins’ logo as a rival business might, according to the Washington Post. He also argued the Redskins should have filed suit with the US Court of Appeals, not district court.

“They stand to gain nothing or lose nothing,” the group’s attorneys’ motion to dismiss said. “Although [the Native Americans] might be pleased or disappointed with the outcome of this case, that does not make them ‘parties in interest’,” as defined by federal trademark law.

But Bob Raskopf, one of the team’s attorneys, seemed exasperated by the Native Americans’ argument that they are no longer valid parties in the case, the Post reported.

“I’m a bit surprised by what I’m hearing,” he said. The Native Americans are, indeed, the right people to sue, he added, because if not for them, the patent board would never have declared that the team’s trademark protections should be stripped.

“They professed that they have a personal stake in the registration,” Raskopf told Lee, repeatedly noting the large volume of evidence furnished by Blackhorse and the four other Native Americans in the case.

Blackhorse told Al Jazeera America that part of her reasoning for filing the petition with the PTO was an experience she had while attending a Redskins game in 2005.

"These fans were very aggressive and they were very rude and very disrespectful, very racist and hostile, and just because we simply stood there and held a sign saying we don’t agree with Native American mascots," she said in an interview. "I also saw the way that they dress — the red face, the feathers. That’s basically mockery of our culture. That opened my eyes to all of this."

Raskopf told the judge a dismissal would deprive the team of its chance to appeal the patent board’s decision. However, after the Friday’s hearing, he told reporters that, if the judge rules that Blackhorse and the other Native Americans are not the right defendants, he would ask that the patent and trademark office serve as a substitute so the case can proceed.

During the hearing, Lee frequently asked if he would be the first judge in the US to dismiss a trademark lawsuit on the grounds that there was no proper defendant, according to the Post. He will issue a written ruling soon.

While Lee’s statement that he will allow the lawsuit to go forward could be seen as a judicial victory for team owner Dan Snyder, the court of public opinion viewed the decision to sue the five Native Americans as a loss.

“Yes, you read that right: For now, the Redskins – whose name everyone from President Obama to Sen. John McCain call offensive – can move forward with a suit against a group of Native Americans who take umbrage with the term,” MSNBC wrote.

“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?” Addicting Info asked.

The organization also took a public relations hit on Sunday, when several thousand people, mostly of Native American descent, protested the team’s name and mascot outside TCF Bank Stadium on the University of Minnesota campus, where the Minnesota Vikings beat the Washington Redskins 29-26. Native American leaders, local politicians, former sports stars and other speakers called on the team's owner and the NFL to change the name. (Snyder, who has owned the team since 1999, has repeatedly said that he would “never” change the team’s name.)

"We're not mascots!" said former Vikings strong safety Joey Browner, who is part Native American, told rally attendees, according to CBS News.

"As a former player I feel really sad right now. ... This is still standing in front of us," said Browner, a six-time Pro Bowl pick, who called the nickname a "bullying tactic."

Neither the loss nor the protest were the least of the players’ woes on Sunday, though. On their way to the game in Minneapolis that morning, the team buses were involved in an accident when their police escort missed the exit ramp. One player, rookie running back Silas Redd, was held out of the game due to injuries suffered during the crash, AFP reported.

“A little unique way to start the day getting ready for a football game when you’re five feet away from driving off a cliff onto a highway,” Redskins coach Jay Gruden, who was bothered Sunday by a stiff neck, told the Washington Times. “It was an experience that would shake a lot of people, to be honest with you.”