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Court considers cancellation of Redskins team marks

A federal judge heard sharply divergent views on Wednesday about the use of the Washington Redskins name, with both sides of the dispute asking for a final decision in the long-running controversy.

U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly held a hearing to address summary judgment motions filed by Pro-Football Inc., the corporation that owns the Redskins, and a group of Native Americans led by activist Suzan Shown Harjo. During the three-hour proceeding, lawyers sparred over the central issue in the case -- whether the name is offensive to American Indians.

"The notion that any of this is respectful is clearly nonsense," said Michael A. Lindsay, who represents the Native Americans.

In 1992, Harjo and six other prominent members of the Indian community, including legal scholar Vine Deloria Jr. and educator Norbert Hill, asked the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to cancel the Redskins family of marks. They cited a law that prevents registration of marks that disparage any race, religion or group.

In April 1999, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board, which is part of the patent office, handed the group a significant victory. The board's ruling said they were "disparaging" and subjected Native Americans to "contempt" and "disrepute."

Pro-Football appealed the decision and is asking Kollar-Kotelly to throw it out. Robert Raskopf, an attorney for team owner Dan Snyder, said the board relied on faulty evidence of a few activists who do not represent the views of Indian Country.

"The record is devoid of substantial evidence that a substantial composite of Native Americans are disparaged" by the Redskins, he told the court.

Even though national organizations like the National Congress of American Indians and the National Indian Education Association have opposed the name, Raskopf argued that the complaints have come too late. Since the first Redskins mark was approved in 1967, the challenges should have come then, he said.

Lindsay countered that the harm to Native Americans continues today. "You are depriving everyone else who becomes disparaged later on," he said, noting that one of the complainants, artist Mateo Romero, was born in 1968.

At the height of the controversy in 1999, Snyder purchased the team for a record $800 million, according to news accounts. He has refused to change the name and was forced to testify not just once, but twice in the case. His recent deposition, which took place in May, had to be ordered by the court because he refused to answer questions the first time around.

Snyder's testimony remains under seal, as does much of the financial information about the team's worth. Pro-Football argues that cancellation of the marks will be an enormous blow to a brand name that has been 25 years in the making.

After the hearing, Harjo said the exact opposite was true. "You'd make a fortune off the sale of memorabilia alone," she said.

Kollar-Kotelly had a list of questions for both sides, including whether the case was brought too late, what standard she should apply in examining the record and whether she can reverse the board's decision or send it back to the agency for additional review. She asked for additional arguments due by the end of next week. She took the case under advisement and did not give any indication of when she might rule.

Pro-Football has deliberately taken the slower route in the dispute. The case could have taken directly to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals but has instead been stuck at the district court, where the fighting has been bitter.

At the same time, the team has said the delay in resolution hurts the Redskins. Yesterday, Raskopf noted that former owner Jack Kent Cooke could not be deposed because he was dead, prompting Lindsay to call the argument "the height of chutzpah" because the team would not let him testify when he was alive.

Raskopf in turn objected when Lindsay characterized George Preston Marshall, who owned the Redskins during the 1960s, as NFL's "biggest bigot." Although Native Americans had played for the team, it was the last in the league to integrate, a decision forced by former Interior secretary Stewart Udall, who would not allow a new stadium on federal land unless Marshall complied.

The case is Pro Football Inc. v. Harjo, No. 99-1385.

Recent Decision:
Pro Football Inc. v. Harjo (March 4, 2003)

Patent and Trademark Office Ruling:
Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (1999)

Relevant Links:
Redskins - http://www.redskins.com

Related Stories:
Judge to hold hearing on Redskins mark case (7/21)
Opinion: Take Indians out of Redskins (12/02)
On Mascots: 'Redskins' is our n-word (09/16)
White Man: Indians proud of Redskins (5/30)
Opinion: Why Redskins must change (3/4)
Redskins get 'new' old look (2/7)
Redskins uniforms changed, for now (2/6)
Harjo: Seeking 'honor' in R-word (2/4)
Opinion: Redskins is for Indians (1/28)
Letters: More on Redskins name (1/18)
Redskins name OK if it offends (1/17)
As If: Replace Redskins logo (1/15)
Editorial: Redskins honors Native people (1/14)
Letters: Debate over Redskins name (1/14)
Redskins name called 'dehumanizing' (1/10)
Redskins told to pick new name (1/9)
Letter: 'Redskins' honors Native people (1/9)
Opinion: War over Redskins plate (1/7)
Redskins name wanted changed (11/19)

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