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'Redskins' patent decision strikes chord with social work professor

Hilary Weaver

Hilary Weaver says two incidents in her personal and professional lives illustrate why the recent U.S. Patent Office decision to cancel the Washington Redskins trademarks addresses an issue that goes far beyond what too many people see as harmless sports mascots. Photo: Douglas Levere

By CHARLES ANZALONE

Published June 26, 2014

“The trademark decision is a step in the right direction and reflects slow momentum of recognition that team names and mascots based on Native Americans are considered offensive and degrading to many Native Americans.”
Hilary Weaver, professor
School of Social Work

Some years back, shortly after joining the faculty of the School of Social Work, Hilary N. Weaver attended a regional conference in Western New York to address substance abuse in the Native American community. The hotel where the conference was held also hosted a certain visiting NFL football team.

“Welcome Redskins,” read a huge banner in the hotel lobby.

Years later — three years ago, actually — Weaver took her two children, who she has raised with a strong sense of Native American identity, to a Family Fun Day at Coca Cola Field. There were bounce houses, a climbing wall, appearances by Sabretooth and other children’s activities. Her family had a great time until after the game started: The Bisons were playing the Indians.

Fans surrounding her family kept making anti-Indian comments until her 9-year-old son spoke out loud, declaring — as much to himself as anyone – that “Indians” were good.

“We were booed and had to suffer through their on-going profanity because of my son’s simple statement and the pride that I encouraged him to have in his heritage,” says Weaver, professor and associate dean for academic affairs.

The hotel lobby sign left Weaver so embarrassed that she wanted to shrink under a conference table. The insults and blatant discrimination tainting what should have been a carefree afternoon at the ballpark left a deep hurt inside.

Both incidents are clear reasons why the recent U.S. Patent Office decision to cancel the Washington Redskins trademarks addresses inequities that go far beyond what too many people still see as harmless sports mascots, she says.

“The trademark decision is a step in the right direction and reflects slow momentum of recognition that team names and mascots based on Native Americans are considered offensive and degrading to many Native Americans, as well as others,” says Weaver, whose research work centers on issues of Native Americans and other indigenous populations.  

Weaver praises other schools and universities for dropping their native mascots. “Some have done this quite reluctantly,” she notes.

The trademark decision does come with significant limitations, according to Weaver.

“It does not reflect anyone with the team recognizing a problem with the name,” she says. “Quite the contrary, the people associated with the team plan to appeal the ruling and expect to win as they have before.”

A three-judge panel at the Patent & Trademark Office ruled 2-1 that the name wasn’t worthy of federal trademark protection. Legal analysts think this decision could escalate the campaign against a brand that the NFL and team owner Daniel M. Snyder have vigorously defended.

The judges said the nickname is an insult to Native Americans, threatening millions of dollars the team and the National Football League make from merchandise and sponsorships.

The decision does reflect a larger societal context in which names that are considered disparaging are increasingly unacceptable, Weaver says.

“This, however, is a very slow process,” Weaver says, “and disparaging names like Redskins have remained long after names and characters disparaging to other groups have largely fallen by the wayside.”

Weaver continues to teach and write how stereotyping perpetuated by mascots and teams with “Indian” nicknames is an underlying factor in many social and health disparities between Native Americans and other segments of American society.