Today’s decision by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s Trademark Trial and Appeal Board to vacate six of the Washington Redskins’ trademarks on grounds that they are “disparaging to Native Americans” does more than just raise the temperature in a nasty public relations fight between owner Daniel Snyder and various public officials (Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, perhaps most notable among them.)
The ruling could also set the stage for other ethnic and national groups to challenge long-standing professional sports trademarks that heretofore have largely flown under the radar.
The fight over the Redskins’ name, which some take to be a racially derogatory slur, is just the most high-profile of what has been a decades-long battle over team mascots. Understandably, given how common Native American names and imagery have been in the American sports landscape, those have been the primary focus, going back to when Stanford and Syracuse universities both dropped their Indian mascots in the 1970s.
The issue truly came to the forefront at the college level in the early 1990s (at least one version of the Redskins trademark case, similarly, dates from 1992.) In the past quarter-century, NCAA colleges that have shifted away from Indian-related names include Eastern Michigan, Marquette, St. John’s, St. Bonaventure, Miami of Ohio, Quinnipiac and, most recently and perhaps most contentiously, the University of North Dakota.
Of course, many Native American names and mascots persist. At the pro level, in addition to the Redskins, the National Football League also has the Kansas City Chiefs. In addition, there’s Major League Baseball’s Cleveland Indians and Atlanta Braves, the National Hockey League’s Chicago Blackhawks and the National Basketball Association’s Golden State Warriors. The teams differ in the degrees to which they continue to employ iconography that evoke Native American stereotypes, ranging from the Indians’ highly questionable, grinning, red-faced “Chief Wahoo” logo to the Warriors, which essentially dropped any Indian symbolism way back in 1971.
But Indians are not the only ethnic group that have been made team mascots. Indeed, the practice was once shockingly common. Unsurprisingly, Negro League teams were filled with references to their players’ skin color, with myriad “black” variants of other established team names: Black Barons, Black Bears, Black Bronchos, Black Caps, Black Colonels, Black Eagles, Black Lookouts, Black Senators, Black Sox, Black Spiders, Black Tyrites, Black Yankees and, of course, in a double-dose of offensiveness, Black Indians.
Then there were the Negro League team names that went above and beyond, into new levels of cringe-inducing tastelessness, like the Colored House of David, the New York Cubans, the Jersey City Colored Athletics, the Ethiopian Clowns, the Zulu Cannibal Giants and, perhaps with a hint of irony, the Atlanta Black Crackers.
In basketball’s pre-NBA days, one of the dominant teams was the all-Jewish Philadelphia “Sphas,” which took its name from the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association. The Sphas, who generally were known colloquially as the Philadelphia Hebrews, played in a pro and semi-pro circuit that included a number of all-Jewish teams, including the perhaps even more questionably named Cleveland Rosenblums.
The era of naming teams for ethnic groups has, by and large, faded into an increasingly embarrassing past. It’s safe to say the Anti-Defamation League wouldn’t cotton to a new team called the “Rosenblums,” to say nothing of what the NAACP would think of the “Zulu Cannibal Giants.” But there are still some teams in the major professional North American sports whose monikers originated as ethnic terms. They mostly go unnoticed due either to the obscurity of the term or the apathy (or even, positive embrace) of the affected groups. Nonetheless, in the wake of the Redskins decision, here are four ethnic groups who could conceivably earn their day in court.
The Irish: The best-known and perhaps most obvious of ethnic-related pro sports names happens to belong to the NBA’s most storied franchise, the Boston Celtics. According to possibly apocryphal team lore, founder Walter Brown insisted upon the name, over the objections of public relations staff, declaring: “Boston is full of Irishmen. We’ll put them in green uniforms and call them the Boston Celtics!”
The team’s logo is a slightly watered-down caricature of longstanding stereotypes perpetuated by bigoted anti-Catholic Irish bashers, from the shillelagh to the clog shoes to the derby hat to the pipe and potbelly and leering wink. All that’s missing from the equation are implications that the character is a violent alcoholic, perhaps because that would run too close to violating the trademark of college football’s most-celebrated team, the University of Notre Dame Fightin’ Irish.
The Dutch: The New York Knickerbockers, better known as the Knicks, trace their name to a term used to describe the descendants of the original Dutch colony of Nieuw-Nederlandt, whose progeny would eventually include the American presidents Martin Van Buren and Franklin and Teddy Roosevelt. The term was popularized by Washington Irving’s satirical 1809 novel “A History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty,” written under the pseudonym Diedrich Knickerbocker.
Though there is evidence the term was actually drawn from a real Knickerbacker family (originally Kinnekerbacker), the popular image of the Knickerbocker became inextricably tied with knickered pants that roll up at the knee. The stereotyped character of “Father Knickerbacker,” with his knickers, cotton wig, tricorn hat and buckled shoes, persisted into the 20th Century. Indeed, for their first 18 years of existence, the Knicks’ logo was Father Knickerbocker dribbling a basketball.
English-Americans: It can be argued that the name of the Knicks’ cross-town compatriots, the New York Yankees, is actually the direct inverse of Knickerbocker. Though the precise origin of the term Yankee remains under dispute, by 1758, it was recorded as a slur that native Brits would use to describe their cousins in New England.
Most linguists agree that Yankee is likely of Dutch origin, noting its similarity to the Dutch diminutive name “Janke,” or “Johnny,” and would have been used by the New York Dutch to describe English settlers in neighboring Connecticut. H.L. Mencken famously argued the name was derived from the Dutch Jan Kaas, literally meaning “John Cheese.” Basically, Mencken’s claim was that the term originated as a slur the Dutch used to call the English a bunch of “cheese heads.”
Canadians: Among the National Hockey League’s six Canadian-based teams, there are not one, but two teams named for ethnic terms for our friends from the Great White North: the Vancouver Canucks and the Montreal Canadiens. Though both terms are generally used today to describe pretty much any resident of Canada, they both originated more specifically as terms to describe French-Canadians. The term “Canadiens” predates the nation of Canada, and originally referred to any French-speaking North American.
Canuck is of more recent vintage, and its precise origins (like those of Yankee) are hotly disputed. What is in less dispute is that Canuck long has been used as a slur. Its first published appearance with its current spelling came in 1849, in James Edward Alexander’s “L’Acadie,” to describe “a lusty fellow in a forest road with a keg of whisky slung round him.” By the turn of the 20th Century, the character of Johnny Canuck had emerged as a rival to Uncle Sam, except portrayed as a dim-witted lumberjack. Johnny Canuck (complete with toque, the stereotypical national hat) also served as the Canucks’ original mascot.
Meanwhile, if it turns out that Washington’s football team does need to change its name, the Washington Gerrymanders sounds about right to me.