Indian Raid on Cooke's Wallet

CLARENCE PAGE

September 22, 1992|By CLARENCE PAGE

WASHINGTON — Washington.--When football season returns, so do stadium blankets, tailgate parties and the raging debate over the name of the football team housed in the nation's capital.

Yes, it is time to complain once again about the Washington Redskins, reigning Super Bowl champs and the only big-time professional sports team whose name is an unequivocal racial slur.

For years, Native American Indian groups and a wide variety of knee-jerk liberal sympathizers, including me, your humble scrivener, have pointed fingers of shame, shame, shame at the R-word team.

After all, how would we react if the team was named the Washington Negroes? Or the Washington Jews? And, what's worse, the name of Washington's team -- unlike the Cleveland Indians, the Atlanta Braves, the Chicago Blackhawks (named for an actual chief) or the Kansas City Chiefs -- is more than a mere racial reference. It is an actual racial epithet.

As much as Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke defends the name as representing positive attributes like courage, strength and valor, frontiersmen and women did not use ''redskins'' to make Indians feel good about themselves.

So the crusade goes on. One groundswell movement has urged the team to call itself the ''Hogs,'' a fitting tribute, I'd say, to those who dine at Washington's public trough.

The Portland Oregonian startled the world by banning the team names Redskins, Braves, Indians and Redmen (St. Johns in New York) from its sports pages. Instead, writers have to use some other identifiers, like ''a certain Atlanta-based baseball team associated with the 'tomahawk chop.' '' The list has not grown in the few months since its inception. So far, Notre Dame's ''Fightin' Irish'' is safe.

There may be more than one way to skin the Redskins. Weary of trying to appeal to Mr. Cooke's heart, a national coalition of Native American Indian groups is staging a counterattack on his wallet. Seven organizations filed a complaint with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to remove the federal government's 25-year-old trademark protection of the team's name.

Even if the Native American groups win, Mr. Cooke could go right on using the name without the government's protection, but he would risk losing a lot of revenue: T-shirt bootleggers and other enterprisers would be eager to take advantage of the name's liberation from Mr. Cooke's ownership and government protection. Those who know him say Mr. Cooke never walks away from revenue. As Chicago Bears Coach Mike Ditka once said of his team's owners, Jack Kent Cooke tosses nickels around like they were manhole covers. Can the Indians, the real Indians, win this one?

Jerome Gilson, a Chicago attorney and author of a six-volume treatise on trademark law, says he thinks it will be a tough fight, judging by the fewer than a dozen similar cases that have come before the patent office's review board over the years. The patent office has never canceled a registered trademark based on the cited law, section 2A of the Lanham Act, although it has refused to grant a few before the mark was used.

The Redskins' service mark has only grown in value and protectability since 1967, Mr. Gilson said, proposing that the patent office survey Redskins fans to see if they think it is too disparaging to retain. A survey of Redskins fans? Why bother? Redskins fans probably will reject their beloved team's name shortly after Detroit votes to lift trade tariffs with Japan.

Stephen R. Baird, a Minneapolis-based attorney in the firm of Dorsey & Whitney, hopes for another scenario. He argues quite sensibly that the ''relevant public'' who should be surveyed is the Native American Indian community, not the team's fans. Civil-rights law, if not patent law, sides with that. After all, it is Indians, not sports fans in general, who should know best whether they are being insulted.

Win or lose, I admire the protesting groups for their stamina. It's no longer chic to defend the feelings of minority groups. Do it and you soon might find yourself pinned to the wall in a backlash against ''political correctness.''

You may be called a meddler. You may be called a fussbudget. You may be called an old fuddy-duddy, a nattering nabob of nannyism and a busybody, among other choice words. But don't wipe off your war paint too quickly. You also might be right.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

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