Washington NFL trademark case has roots in Lawrence

In this June 17, 2014, file photo, Washington helmets sit on the field during an NFL football minicamp in Ashburn, Va.

Amanda Blackhorse is a lot of things — a social worker, an activist, a Navajo.

But she is not a mascot.

Blackhorse, a Haskell Indian Nations University and Kansas University graduate, is the lead plaintiff in Blackhorse et al v. Pro-Football Inc., a nationally watched case that last week resulted in the cancellation of the Washington NFL team’s federal trademark registrations over objections the football team’s name is a racial slur.

U.S. District Judge Gerald Bruce Lee’s ruling Wednesday upheld an earlier finding by an administrative appeals board and ordered the federal Patent and Trademark Office to cancel the registration, the first time such a ruling had been issued in the more than 20-year-long legal battle.

Blackhorse called that decision a wonderful victory for natives as a whole.

“It’s not just about the Washington name, it’s about racism as a whole and the respect that we’re demanding as an indigenous people,” she said.

Blackhorse, who currently lives in Phoenix but graduated from Haskell in 2004 and from KU two years later, got involved with the case when she was living in Lawrence. It was in 2005 that Blackhorse, as part of the group Not In Our Honor — made up of KU and Haskell students — protested at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City when the Chiefs played Washington. At the game, Blackhorse held a sign reading, “I’m not your mascot,” and said the overt racist comments made to her in response were an “eye-opening experience.”

“I think racism in general is usually done kind of privately, someone making racial slurs to you on the sly, but this was just outright,” she said of some fans’ comments to her.

That experience was fresh on Blackhorse’s mind when Dan Wildcat and Rhonda LeValdo, both current faculty members at Haskell, connected her with Suzan Harjo, who starting in 1992 led a similar case that ultimately lost in appeals. From there Blackhorse, who was 24 when her case opened, and four other young Native Americans became the new generation driving the legal battle and a fixture in the anti-Washington mascot movement.

At the heart of the case is the Lanham Act, a federal law that prohibits trademarks that disparage people or “bring them into contempt or disrepute.” The term, which the team has used since the 1930s, is a dictionary-defined racial slur. But for Blackhorse and many other Native Americans, its use goes beyond semantics and mascots.

“This is about racism toward native people and reclaiming our identity as native people,” Blackhorse said, noting that for many Americans, native mascots and the negative stereotypes they perpetuate are one of the few representations of Native American culture they encounter.

“Now I think people are beginning to question that and what has been the norm of stereotyping native people,” Blackhorse said.

Though the Washington team president, Bruce Allen, told the media the organization is prepared to appeal the ruling all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court — a process Blackhorse predicts could take up to two years — she believes change is coming soon.

“We’ve been waiting a long time,” she said, “and I feel like the team is being kind of backed into a corner.

“I’m not really sure what other avenue they have.”

— The Associated Press contributed to this story.