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Your source for news, updates and guidance on all things trademarks and intellectual property.

Play Ball and Drop the “Chop”: Celebrating Fall Sports and Indigenous People

Donna Mirman | November 04, 2021
4 min read

Donna L. Mirman, a New York Yankees fan, is of counsel at Gottlieb, Rackman & Reisman, P.C., where she specializes in all areas of trademark law. She is formerly an attorney advisor with the United States Patent and Trademark Office.

Fall is always an exciting time for sports fans with the NFL and college football kicking off, baseball playoffs in full swing, and the NHL and NBA beginning their seasons. While fans are focusing on their favorite teams and players, they may also notice that lately there’s been a great deal of attention paid to teams’ names and logos related to or referencing Indigenous people and Tribal Nations. Many teams are being re-named, mascots are being re-imagined, and cheers are being retired as many references to Indigenous people and Tribal Nations are seen as offensive.

While there’s been a shift to eliminate references to Indigenous people and Tribal Nations in connection with sports teams, the Biden administration is also working to support the Indigenous people and Tribal Nations communities. Last month, President Biden issued a proclamation to observe October 11, 2021—Columbus Day—as Indigenous Peoples’ Day in order to honor “the invaluable contributions and resilience of Indigenous peoples”. While many were pleased to see Biden’s proclamation, Indigenous People and Tribal Nations have faced a long battle in the sports industry. For over 60 years, there have been protests and other actions by Native Americans and their supporters targeting the prominent use of Indigenous names, images, and mascots by professional franchises such as the Cleveland Indians, Chicago Blackhawks, Washington Redskins, Golden State Warriors, Kansas City Chiefs, and Atlanta Braves, the latter two also attracting criticism for the “Tomahawk Chop” often performed by their fans. To date, the Washington Redskins and Cleveland Indians are the only teams to have made significant moves to change their team names, although others have changed their logos or retired mascots.

Atlanta Braves

Despite recurrent calls to change the name the “Atlanta Braves,” the Atlanta National League Baseball Club, LLC seems to have no intention of doing so even after the Cleveland Indians revealed their new moniker this past July.  Upon the death of Hank Aaron in January—Aaron having played almost his entire career with the Braves—the Braves’ protestors have renewed their cries that the name be changed, with fans even suggesting names like “Hammer” or “Hammerin”, Aaron’s nickname.

Since the Atlanta Braves were crowned the 2021 World Series champions, the “Tomahawk Chop” cheer and Cherokee chants of the fans continue and only grow louder. In addition to the team name, the “Tomahawk Chop” cheer is seen as disparaging to the Cherokee people. In the 2019 playoffs, Ryan Helsley, a pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals who is part Cherokee, took offense to the “Chop” at the Braves’ home games, asserting, “I think it’s a misrepresentation of the Cherokee people or Native Americans in general…[The “Tomahawk Chop”] devalues us and how we’re perceived in that way, or used as mascots.”

To their credit, the Braves have retired their former mascot, Chief Noc-a-Noma, and partnered with a tribe of Cherokee Indians for nearly two decades with a link on their website for the sale of t-shirts displaying Syllabary (the Cherokee’s written language) which feature common baseball terms translated into the native Cherokee language in order to garner attention for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

Professional Franchises That Have Changed Their Names

On July 13, 2020 after years of pressure, the Washington NFL franchise team announced that it was retiring the offensive name “Redskins.” That same day, Nike removed all apparel from its website that included the word “Redskins.” Since then, the team has been using the temporary name the “Washington Football Team” until a new name is chosen. While there are several options under consideration, the name will not be revealed until 2022 at the earliest.

In the meantime, the following applications were filed in July 2020 on behalf of the Washington NFL franchise in the name of Pro Football, Inc.:

WASHINGTON FOOTBALL TEAM Clothing, namely, fleece tops and bottoms, headwear, caps being headwear, knit hats, t-shirts, shirts, turtlenecks, sweatshirts, shorts, tank tops, sweaters, pants, jackets, golf shirts, knit shirts, jerseys, wristbands, warm up suits, gloves, ties, cloth bibs; sleepwear, namely, bathrobes, pajamas; underwear; socks; scarves; swimwear; boxers briefs; bibs not of paper; footwear; sneakers; slippers

Entertainment in the nature of professional football exhibitions and games

July 23, 2020 90069568
Washing Football Team [design mark] Same as above in classes 25 and 41 July 29, 2020 90080449
WASHINGTON FOOTBALL TEAM, EST. 1932 Same as above in classes 25 and 41 July 29, 2020 90080458

In addition to being descriptive marks, all three of Pro Football’s pending applications have been issued §2(d) office actions because of a likelihood of confusion with the mark WASHINGTON FOOTBALL CLUB, which is on the Supplemental Register and owned by the Washington Redwolves LLC. Interestingly, the Washington Redwolves is one of the names being considered by the Washington Football Team. Pro Football has a deadline of December 18, 2021 to respond to the refusals of its three applications.

On July 23, 2021, the Cleveland MLB franchise announced it was changing its name from the Cleveland Indians to the Cleveland Guardians, and the organization—Cleveland Indians Baseball Company, LLC—filed several applications for the marks CLEVELAND GUARDIANS, CLEVELAND, and GUARDIANS with the USPTO. Notably, all eight applications were initially filed in the tiny island of Mauritius months before, allowing them to claim the earlier April filing date for their USPTO application. Presumably this was done to reserve the names in the hopes of preventing squatters from filing before them in the United States. Learn more about filing applications abroad and later filing with the USPTO pursuant to §44(d) in order to avoid disclosure in these Alt Legal articles: Keep It on the 44(D)ownlow: Filing Trademark Applications Abroad to Preserve Confidentiality and Priority and Tongan Shell Game: How Apple and Google File Trademarks.

The Cleveland Indians Baseball Company, LLC filed a number of trademark applications with the USPTO on July 23, 2021 for several marks including CLEVELAND GUARDIANS and GUARDIANS, as well as related design marks.

Despite this move to safeguard the name until the announcement was made in the summer of 2021 on the part of the Cleveland Indians, a third party nevertheless filed applications for the selected name CLEVELAND GUARDIANS well-prior to the clandestine Mauritius filing. Exactly a year earlier, two applications were filed in July 2020 for the mark CLEVELAND GUARDIANS with the USPTO. These applications, collectively covering athletic apparel (Class 25), entertainment in the nature of baseball games (Class 41) and licensing of intellectual property rights (Class 45), were filed in the name of Bryant Street Sports LLC. Both applications were published for opposition in the Official Gazette around the time of Cleveland’s name reveal, and it seems that the applicants settled the issue since both applications were expressly abandoned by Bryant Street Sports about a week after the announcement.

Looking Forward

In addition to the Atlanta Braves, the remaining professional sports teams with names referencing Indigenous People or culture that have not changed their names are:


Although these teams seemingly have no plans to change their names in the near future, the Chiefs did recently retire their longtime mascot, a horse named Warpaint, this past July.

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