Minnesota is familiar turf for NFL’s Redskins mascot battle

Redskins helmet
Washington Redskins helmets on the ground during their Sept. 29 game against the Raiders in Oakland. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Opponents of the name of the Washington, D.C. NFL franchise are asking the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority to take a stand against the controversial nickname. Critics want the Redskins name bannned in the new stadium.

It's a chance provided by the once-in-a-generation handoff from one stadium to another, and to rewrite the "house rules" in the process. Minnesota happens to be going through that change right now, just as the Oneida Nation in upstate New York  began a campaign against the Redskins name.

But it isn't the first time Minneapolis has  played a role in the controversy. Back in the mid 1990s, the Minneapolis-based Dorsey and Whitney law firm battled the team before Washington's D.C.s Trademark Trial and Appeal Board. And won.

At least at first.

Attorney Michael Lindsay

Dorsey and Whitney attorney Michael Lindsay was one of the lead attorneys on the pro-bono case. They challenged the team's trademark on its name cancelled, arguing that "Redskins" violated the prohibition on a trademark for anything that "disparages or may be scandalous."

Lindsay said the legal team brought together trademark experts, a linguist, a historian, a psychologist and even a film scholar to survey the use and meaning of the word in popular culture.

"We pulled together all these various different perspectives, all to arrive at the proposition that this term is disparaging. The mark should be canceled. The Trademark Trial and Appeal Board unanimously agreed, and ordered that the marks be cancelled," Lindsay said in an interview.

That was back in 1999. The finding was appealed to the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. The judge there reversed the trademark decision, and the D.C. Circuit appeals court affirmed it.  Lindsay said the case turned on the delay -- the time it took for opponents to bring their case against the decades-old team name.

The NFL and its Washington franchise have been defending the use of the term, as recently as Wednesday, when owner Dan Snyder sent a letter to fans saying he intended to keep then name. "As some of you may know, our team began 81 years ago -- in 1932 -- with the name 'Boston Braves.'" Synder wrote. "The following year, the franchise name was changed to the “Boston Redskins.” On that inaugural Redskins team, four players and our Head Coach were Native Americans. The name was never a label. It was, and continues to be, a badge of honor."

Lindsay is chair of Dorsey and Whitney's commercial litigation group and says the firm is no longer involved in the team name controversy. Another of the firm's lawyers, Jay Lindgren, is actually the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority's attorney now.

But Lindsay says other legal experts are still working on the same issue in Washington, using the same evidence to press the case that the Redskins name at the very least shouldn't get trademark protection.

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