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Trademark ruling a sign that name will change

By Larry Stone The day will eventually come when we'll shake our heads in wonderment. Did we really allow the pro football team in our nation's capital to have the name of a malignant slur against a race of people? For more than 75 years?

By Larry Stone

The day will eventually come when we'll shake our heads in wonderment. Did we really allow the pro football team in our nation's capital to have the name of a malignant slur against a race of people? For more than 75 years?

That day has not yet arrived, but it's coming. You can feel the momentum building, inexorably, with each passing month. The cause was pulled forward by Wednesday's decision to cancel the trademark registration of the name Redskins on the grounds that "a substantial composite of Native Americans" found the term to be disparaging.

Isolated, it doesn't seem like a landmark decision, though that's what many Native American activists are calling it.

For one thing, with appeals, the case will likely be tied up in appellate court for what could be five years - and that's before the inevitable Supreme Court challenge. A similar ruling in 1999 was overturned four years later on a technicality.

Robert T. Anderson, a University of Washington law professor and director of the Native American Law Center, believes that the decision will ultimately be upheld.

"The way I read it, it seems pretty solid in terms of withstanding appellate review," he told me Wednesday.

Yet Anderson points out that even if upheld, the decision does not compel the Redskins to stop using the name. It would merely lose the protection of U.S. trademark law. That means that others would theoretically be free to market the name as they choose, free of legal challenge by Washington owner Daniel Snyder.

No, the decision to change the Redskins' name will come, as Anderson aptly put it, only when they are persuaded to do so on "moral, righteous, or economic" grounds. And that's precisely where the groundswell is growing, and the pressure building, with this ruling being merely the latest example.

"I think it's a great step forward. There's been a lot of talk more recently, but NCAI has been working on this issue for 45 years," said Brian Howard, legislative associate with the National Congress of American Indians. "With new technology, social media, and grassroots activism of Native Americans, we think it is shedding light on the history of this name and its stereotypical and racist implications." Howard added that the dissent is "only going to get stronger, only going to get louder." Many will say it's political correctness run amok. I say it's common decency coming to the forefront - belatedly.

Others will claim that the original intent of the team's name by then-owner George Preston Marshall was to honor coach William Henry "Lone Star" Dietz, a self-proclaimed Sioux. This point has been disputed, as has the etymology of the term redskins.

Some people will refer to polls that show widespread support for maintaining the name Redskins, even among some Native Americans. But the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board, in Wednesday's ruling, concluded that "at a minimum, approximately 30 percent of Native Americans found the term ... to be disparaging." That's at least 600,000 Native Americans, based on a Native population of 1.8 million. Beyond that, it's a word that most people, regardless of their background, would never even consider using in any context other than describing an NFL team.

I subscribe to the theory of Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer - a staunch conservative.

"I wouldn't want to use a word that defines a people - living or dead, offended or not - in a most demeaning way," he wrote. "It's a question not of who or how many had their feelings hurt, but of whether you want to associate yourself with a word that, for whatever historical reason having nothing to do with you, carries inherently derogatory consequences."

Last June, the Port Townsend (Wash.) school board voted to abolish the Redskins mascot that had adhered to Port Townsend High School for 87 years.

Emotions were high in Port Townsend. But after a year of transition, in which coaches and athletes were directed to retire the Redskins' name "with dignity and honor" by new district athletic director Scott Wilson, they are ready to move forward with a new mascot and logo. As voted on by the students and approved by the superintendent, the new name will be Redhawks, picked over two other finalists, Sasquatch and Riptide.

There are still strong feelings on the issue. But Wilson refused to allow the Port Townsend citizens to wallow in discontent.

"My philosophy is, we're here for the kids, to help them grow," he said. "I would not entertain any discussions about the past. We only talked about the future, and what's best for the kids. People can't argue that.

"It became really apparent that we were going to move forward. A lot of people embraced that notion - even the staunchest Redskins people."

I believe that's where the Washington Redskins are headed on a much larger scale. For now, Snyder is sticking to the stance he imparted last year to USA Today: "We'll never change the name. It's that simple. NEVER - you can use caps." He has an ally, for now, in Commissioner Roger Goodell. But the dissent is churning. The tide is turning. The change WILL come.

And you can use caps.