A federal court has handed the Washington Redskins a legal victory in a 17-year fight with Native American plaintiffs who contend the football team’s mascot and logo are racially offensive. The decision issued by the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington doesn’t address the question of racism, but rests instead on the legal theory of laches – the plaintiffs waited too long to commence their lawsuit to ban the trademark.
The team first received federal trademarks on the name “Redskins” in 1967. The Native American plaintiffs were initially successful in attacking the brand — the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office panel canceled the trademarks in 1999. U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly overturned that decision in 2003 in part because the suit was filed decades after the first Redskins trademark was issued. The U.S. Court of Appeals then remanded the case back to Kollar-Kotelly, noting that the youngest of the plaintiffs was only 1-year-old in 1967 and therefore could not have taken legal action at the time. Kollar-Kotelly’s new ruling rejected that argument, finding that the youngest plaintiff turned 18 in 1984 and therefore waited almost eight years beyond the age of majority to join the lawsuit. The ruling does not address whether the “Redskins” name is offensive or racist, and the holding states that it is not commenting on “the appropriateness of Native American imagery for team names.”
The team’s attorney Bob Raskopf says millions have been spent on the “Redskins” brand and the team would have suffered great economic loss if they lost the trademark registrations. “It’s a great day for the Redskins and their fans and their owner Dan Snyder,” he said. However, a new group of Native American plaintiffs ranging in age from 18 to 24 have filed a nearly identical case. “We’re hopeful that case will lead us ultimately to a ruling on the merits,” said Philip Mause, attorney for the plaintiffs. “We’re very confident about our position on the merits. We think this term is disparaging of Native Americans.”