Law & Practice
UNITED STATES: NFL Team to Drop ‘REDSKINS’ Name, Trademark, and Logo
Published: July 15, 2020
Mari-Elise Paul Stites & Harbison PLLC Louisville, Kentucky, USA INTA Bulletins—North America Subcommittee
Verifier: Peter Rosene McBrayer PLLC Louisville, Kentucky, USA INTA Bulletins—North America Subcommittee
The National Football League’s Washington, D.C., franchise announced on July 13, 2020, that it will be hanging up the REDSKINS name, trademark, and logo.
Changing to what? That play remains unknown.
This change follows months of widespread protests condemning racism and increasing demands to eliminate symbols considered offensive to racial minorities. Over the past 25 years, owners of the team resisted such demands, which resulted in legal battles litigating whether “REDSKINS” is disparaging to Native Americans and capable of federal registration.
Between 1990 and 2006, two different groups of Native Americans petitioned the United States Patent and Trademark Office to cancel the REDSKINS federal registrations, deeming the marks disparaging. In June 2014, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB) ruled in favor of the petitioners, canceling the REDSKINS registrations. In 2015, the franchise brought suit in a United States District Court, seeking a different result, as well as a ruling that the Trademark Act violated the team’s right to free speech and that Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act is void because the term “disparaging” is vague. The District Court handed the team owners another loss, agreeing with the TTAB that REDSKINS is disparaging and holding that the disparagement clause of the Lanham Act is not vague.
Despite the cancellation of its registrations, the franchise refused to change the team name. The United States Supreme Court indirectly handed the team a legal respite in Matal v. Tam, 137 S. Ct. 1744 (2017), ruling that the disparagement clause of the Lanham Act violated the First Amendment. Following this decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit vacated the opinions that canceled the team’s registrations.
But given the recent exponential rise in public pressure, the franchise earlier this month announced that it was undertaking a “thorough review” of the team name. Contributing to this decision was financial pressure from corporate sponsors such as FedEx, as well as from retailers like Nike and Amazon, which removed the team’s merchandise bearing the REDSKINS trademark and logo from their online stores.
The team’s next play remains unknown because the preferred replacement name faces trademark issues. One rumored option is the Washington Warriors, which has several potential obstacles, including Philip Martin McCaulay, a local realtor who is the listed applicant of numerous pending applications. Anticipating the rebrand, in 2015, Mr. McCaulay filed a total 44 trademark applications related to potential team names. He filed additional applications last week, admitting an intent to capitalize on the team’s renaming.
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