When the Supreme Court ruled Monday that the federal government violated the First Amendment by refusing to register trademarks that officials consider disparaging, it greatly helped the efforts of the Washington Redskins to retain their controversial name. And it also helped other pro teams whose nicknames are considered offensive by Native Americans and other groups.
The ruling originated from a case involving an Asian American rock group called the Slants, which tried to register the band’s name in 2011. The band was turned down by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office because of a law against registering trademarks that might disparage people or groups.
The top court ruled that the “disparagement clause” of the federal trademark law was not constitutional and violated the free speech clause of the First Amendment.
The ruling helps bolster protection of controversial nicknames — virtually all of them referencing Native Americans — of some teams in the four major sports: the Chicago Blackhawks and Vancouver Canucks of the National Hockey League, the Atlanta Braves and Cleveland Indians of Major League Baseball, the Kansas City Chiefs of the National Football League and the Golden State Warriors of the National Basketball Association.
The Atlanta Braves’ “screaming Indian’’ logo was removed by the team in 1989, but the Braves still implore their fans to rally around the team with the tomahawk chop motion during games.
The controversy around the Cleveland Indians logo was brought to the sports forefront last fall when the team reached the World Series. The Indians “Chief Wahoo’’ logo of a grinning Native American is considered the most offensive image of any of the controversial logos or mascots.
Tribal groups protested outside the Chiefs Arrowhead Stadium in 2005 during a game against the Redskins.
Basketball’s Warriors ditched logos with Native American imagery in 1971.
The National Congress of American Indians has been on the front lines of the battle to change what they consider racially offensive names. In a statement regarding the Supreme Court ruling, the organization was “gratified that this Supreme Court case amplified the intensifying public debate over the NFL’s support for bigotry against Native Americans.’’
The Redskins’ trademark registration was canceled in 2014 after it had been used for decades. The football team asked a district judge in Virginia to overturn the cancellation and was refused. The case is now in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in Richmond. The team has used the Redskins name since 1933.
Redskins owner Daniel Snyder said in a statement that “I am THRILLED. Hail to the Redskins.”
According to Forbes magazine, the Redskins are the third most valuable franchise in the NFL in 2016, behind the Cowboys and Patriots, with a value of about $2.85 billion.