Senators urge NFL to act on Redskins’ name, citing NBA action with Donald Sterling (updated)

Updated 10:54 a.m. with team declining comment; 11:18 with Kaine, NFL responses; 11:49 with Goodell’s comments from Atlanta.

Call it the Donald Sterling effect. A little more than three weeks after the NBA banned Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling for racist comments, 50 members of the U.S. Senate wrote letters to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, urging the league’s leaders to press the Redskins to change their name.

“The NFL can no longer ignore this and perpetuate the use of this name as anything but what it is: a racial slur,” the letter, which was first obtained by the New York Times and circulated by Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), states. “We urge the NFL to formally support a name change for the Washington football team.”

Harry Reid, the Democratic senator from Nevada and the Senate majority leader, has long advocated for a name change and cited the NBA’s action on May 1. “The NFL has a lot of problems with all the lawsuits being filed against them for their negligence, and it would seem to me that it would make a lot of sense that they should get rid of having a group of Americans as mascots,” Reid told The Post’s Ed O’Keefe. “They’re not mascots – they’re human beings. I have 22 tribes in Nevada and they’re insulted by this cavalier attitude about what they’re being called.”

One letter, which was not offered to Senate Republicans for their signature, was signed by 49 senators. (Only five of the chamber’s Democrats — Mark R. Warner and Timothy M. Kaine of Virginia, where the Redskins practice, Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Mark Pryor of Arkansas — did not sign.) An aide to Kaine said the Virginia senator has been publicly supportive of a name change for months, but that he had concerns about the tone of the letter. An aide to Warner said in a statement that “Senator Warner believes that it’s not for Congress to dictate what the league does. He believes that over time, team names will change to reflect the times, as happened with the Washington Wizards.”

Ben Cardin and Barbara Mikulski, the senators from Maryland, signed the letter. The Redskins play their home games at FedEx Field in Landover.

In a separate letter to Goodell, Senator Bill Nelson (D-Florida) became the 50th Senator to call for the Redskins to change their name.

The league responded with a written statement: “The NFL has long demonstrated a commitment to progressive leadership on issues of diversity and inclusion, both on and off the field. The intent of the team’s name has always been to present a strong, positive and respectful image. The name is not used by the team or the NFL in any other context, though we respect those that view it differently.”

Redskins owner Daniel Snyder has said the Redskins will “never” change the team’s name and has started the Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation to benefit Native Americans. On Thursday morning, the Redskins, through a spokesman, declined to comment on the letter.

Several people within the sport have said in recent months they’ve sensed little to no pressure being placed on Snyder by the league or other owners to consider a name change. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and other league officials, like the Redskins, consistently have cited polling that they say shows no widespread public support for changing the name.

Goodell was asked Tuesday in Atlanta, at the conclusion of a one-day owners’ meeting there, about the handling of the Sterling case by the NBA and its commissioner, Adam Silver.

“I think they’ve made the right decisions,” Goodell said at a news conference Tuesday. “I salute Adam Silver for being decisive. … He has made the right statement and he’s doing the right things.”

On Wednesday, members of the Oneida Indian Nation and the National Congress of American Indians applauded the letter. “The name of Washington’s NFL team is widely recognized as a racial slur,” Jackie Pata, executive director of the NCAI, said. “The NFL is a global brand, but if it wants to contribute to the positive image of the United States across the world, rather than callously promoting discrimination against Native Americans, then it must stop promoting this slur and finally change the name.”

Ray Halbritter, nation representative and CEO of Oneida Nation Enterprises, said: “Washington team owner Dan Snyder and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell have claimed that using the R-word epithet somehow honors Native peoples, but it is quite the opposite. The R-word is a dictionary defined racial slur, which likely explains why avowed segregationist George Preston Marshall decided to use the term as the team’s name. Continuing an infamous segregationist’s legacy by promoting such a slur is not an honor, as Mr. Snyder and Mr. Goodell claim. It is a malicious insult. That is why leaders in the Senate, in the House of Representatives, in the White House, and at all levels of government across the country are uniting in opposition to this offensive and hurtful name.”

On April 29, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver banned Sterling, the Clippers owner, for racist comments and urge the league to take steps, which are underway now, to force him to sell the team.

Here is the full text of the letter:

Mr. Roger Goodell
Commissioner
National Football League
345 Park Avenue
New York, NY 10154

Dear Commissioner Goodell:

This month, Americans applauded the rapid and decisive reaction from new National Basketball Association Commissioner Adam Silver to the racist remarks of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling. Commissioner Silver sent a clear message that racism will not stand in the NBA.

Today, we urge you and the National Football League to send the same clear message as the NBA did: that racism and bigotry have no place in professional sports. It’s time for the NFL to endorse a name change for the Washington, D.C. football team.

The despicable comments made by Mr. Sterling have opened up a national conversation about race relations. We believe this conversation is an opportunity for the NFL to take action to remove the racial slur from the name of one of its marquee franchises.

Professional sports have tremendous power to influence American society and strengthen our communities. From Jesse Owens to Jackie Robinson to Billie Jean King, athletes have often been a driving force for equality and diversity in our nation.

Now is the time for the NFL to act. The Washington, D.C. football team is on the wrong side of history. What message does it send to punish slurs against African Americans while endorsing slurs against Native Americans?

This is a matter of tribal sovereignty – and Indian Country has spoken clearly on this issue. To this point, we have heard from every national Tribal organization, including the National Congress of American Indians, United South and Eastern Tribes, and the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians. These organizations represent more than 2 million Native Americans across the country and more than 300 Tribes with government-to-government relationships with the United States. These organizations have passed resolutions in support of a name change as they find the Washington, D.C. football team name to be racially offensive.  We have heard from tribes across the country, including the Navajo Nation, the largest tribe in the Country, who oppose this name.  To understand this viewpoint, we urge you to watch the video Proud To Be posted on the National Congress of American Indians website.

At the heart of sovereignty for tribes is their identity. Tribes have worked for generations to preserve the right to speak their languages and perform their sacred ceremonies. Many of today’s tribal leaders have parents and grandparents who were punished and prosecuted for practicing their ceremonies or speaking their languages. That is why tribal leaders worked with Congress to enact laws like the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, the Native American Languages Act, the Indian Arts and Crafts Act, and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.  These are all federal laws intended to protect and respect tribal culture and identity. Yet every Sunday during football season, the Washington, D.C. football team mocks their culture.

The NFL can no longer ignore this and perpetuate the use of this name as anything but what it is: a racial slur. We urge the NFL to formally support and push for a name change for the Washington football team.

Mark Maske, Dan Steinberg and Ed O’Keefe contributed to this report.

Clarification: An earlier version of this post implied that the five senators who did not sign the letter were not Democrats. This version has been updated.

After spending most of her career in traditional print sports journalism, Cindy began blogging and tweeting, first as NFL/Redskins editor, and, since August 2010, at The Early Lead. She also is the social media editor for Sports.
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