The Trademark Trial and Appeal Board of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has officially canceled the Washington Redskins’ trademark registration as reported by multiple news outlets such as the Washington Post, USA Today, and Sports Illustrated.
In a split decision on a three-person board, the Redskins name and logo were deemed to be disparaging, and thus could not be officially protected by the governing body under trademark law. The decision will not prevent the Redskins from continuing to use the name; however if the ruling can withstand a lengthy appeals process that could span more than a decade, The NFL team would no longer be exclusive holder of the rights to use the name in relation to merchandise sales.
Claims to the actual origin of the Washington Redskins name is often communicated as fact rather than theory. The most common theory I hear is that the name originated from the Boston Tea Party. After all, the franchise originated in Boston and the Boston Tea Party is one of the most significant moments in our nations’ history. The basic story consists of colonists painting their “skins” red, dressing like Indians and destroying an entire ship loaded with tea in a demonstration to protest in essence, taxation without representation.
The Boston Tea Party theory does not hold much weight however. There is no historical reference in team history indicating this is where the name was derived. Circumstantial at best, the explanation is a common assumption that has been passed down by word of mouth. It may make sense, but sense does not equal evidence. Two people in the same city may dress similar, but that does not make them blood related.
The true origin of how Washington became the Redskins derives from competition with baseball. In the early 1930’s baseball ruled America’s sporting landscape and with the NFL still in its’ infancy, it was common practice for a team to take on the exact name of professional baseball team that played in the same city. Pittsburgh did not become the Steelers until 1940. Prior to the Steelers they were the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Likewise the Washington Redskins originated as the Boston Braves, copying the same name of the National League baseball team whom they rented use of their stadium from. The football Braves lost $46,000 their first season in the NFL and were threatened with a rate increase to continue to play at Braves Field. As a result two-thirds of the ownership group bolted, leaving George Preston Marshall at the helm.
Marshall in response worked out a deal with the Boston Red Sox of the American League to play at Fenway Park. Instead of changing his football team name to the Red Sox, Marshall was intent on keeping the Native American theme but still needed to feed off the Red Sox popularity. His solution and compromise came with the creation of the Redskins name.
For most, the word Redskins means nothing more than the professional football team that represents Washington D.C. and surrounding areas. It is important to differentiate however a words origin, it’s intent, and the evolution of its’ meaning.
Essentially though, history in this case does not matter. All that matters is how a word is interpreted in the present day. After all how many of us today would describe ourselves as gay because we are in a good mood. The meaning of a word can change over time.
One false attribution of the origin of the term Redskins is that it described Indian scalps that could be turned in for bounty. The document cited dates back to the mid 1700’s and can be read here. The problem with this assertion is nowhere in the text does it reference the actual term “Redskin”. It’s reverse engineering without any code. As is the case with the Boston Tea Party theory, it sounds good but the evidence just isn’t there.
It’s important to note that the Washington Redskins have always portrayed the team name with pride, honor, and a fighting spirit. Because of this many Native Americans endeared themselves with the team over the years. In fact, there are still Native American high schools in this country that continue to use the Redskins as their mascot.
The real reason public opinion has begun to turn on the word “Redskins” is that it simply rubs people the wrong way. Especially in this country where race relations have a troubled history, the appropriateness of a word directly referencing skin color is taboo at best. What’s more, is to take this word that references a race of people, and then use it as a mascot as well.
What must be understood is that the name means different things to different people, and it’s not up to most of us to decide if it is derogatory or not. The only ones who should be making that decision solely belongs to our country’s Native Americans.