WASHINGTON, July 8 (UPI) -- It's still the offseason for professional football, but the Washington Redskins lost again Wednesday -- in the courtroom. And this defeat could be a big one.
A federal judge in Virginia on Wednesday upheld a previous ruling that ordered the cancellation of the team's trademark registration, because the Redskins moniker may disparage Native Americans -- a legal provision that is a killer for any protected U.S. trademark.
Washington's NFL franchise has been fighting for years to keep its name, as more sporting leagues become increasingly concerned about potentially offensive mascots. Redskins owner Dan Snyder, though, has defiantly reiterated in recent years that he will "never" change the team's name, no matter who might declare it a racial slur.
In a summary judgment Wednesday, Judge Gerald Bruce Lee sided with a previous court's declaration that a brand like 'Redskins' cannot be protected under U.S. federal law. The court upheld the prior ruling without even bringing the case to trial.
"I am surprised by the judge's decision to prevent us from presenting our evidence in an open trial," Redskins President Bruce Allen said. "We look forward to winning on appeal after a fair and impartial review of the case."
One of the arguments from the plaintiffs, identified as Pro Football, Inc. in the suit, was that the Redskins name was protected by the Constitution's First Amendment guarding free speech. The judge, though, said the First Amendment is irrelevant in this case.
"The federal trademark registration program is government speech and is therefore exempt from First Amendment scrutiny," he wrote in the summary judgment.
The NFL's Washington franchise is up against the 1946 Lanham Act in its trademark fight, which is the primary federal statute of law that determines exactly what qualifies for trademark protection. In one of its arguments, the plaintiffs claimed the Lanham Act is too vague regarding "disparaging" names and marks -- and, thus, the Redskins shouldn't be penalized for it.
"The Lanham Act is not void [due to] vagueness," the court replied in its ruling, adding that the law does indeed give "fair warning of what conduct is prohibited."
Washington first became the Redskins in 1933, at a time when the potentially offensive nature of sports mascots and logos was not fully recognized. In recent times, though, numerous teams have either volunteered or been ordered by a governing authority to scrap sensitive nicknames.
The National Collegiate Athletic Association forced most of its schools to dump "hostile or abusive" Native American mascots a decade ago -- including St. John's, Syracuse and North Dakota. Only five schools have retained their Native American mascots -- including major conference members Florida State (Seminoles) and Utah (Utes) -- because their respective tribes advocate the use.
The Redskins, however, remain one of the few remaining holdouts on the divisive issue -- which has split fans, attracted controversy and may even keep the team from building a new stadium.
Wednesday's ruling will next go to the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, which is the final venue before the U.S. Supreme Court. It isn't yet known, however, whether the high court would hear the case.
"We are convinced that we will win because the facts and the law are on the side of our franchise that has proudly used the name Redskins for more than 80 years," Allen said.
USA Today Sports columnist Christine Brennan, though, wrote that Wednesday's ruling might represent the beginning of the end for the Redskins name.
"This is a public relations nightmare not just for Snyder, but also for the National Football League," she wrote. "No business wants to look old or dated or be seen as being behind the times. But on this issue, that's exactly where we find Snyder and his team, stuck with a bad 20th-century name in an attentive 21st-century world."