NFL faces pressure from Congress to change Redskins’ name

(Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

Redskins owner Daniel Snyder has said the team does not plan to change its name. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

Two members of Congress have written a letter to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell urging Goodell and the league “to take a formal position in support of a name change” by the Washington Redskins.

The letter by Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) is to be sent Monday to Goodell.

“The NFL can no longer ignore this and perpetuate the use of this name as anything but what it is: a racial slur,” Cantwell and Cole write in the letter. “It is clear that you haven’t heard the leading voices of this country — and not just Indian Country. Virtually every major civil rights organization in America has spoken out in opposition to this name including the NAACP, the Anti-Defamation League, the Rainbow Coalition and the League of United Latin American Citizens.”

The letter mentions the league’s tax-exempt status and says the league is “on the wrong side of history. It is not appropriate for this multibillion dollar … tax-exempt organization to perpetuate and profit from the continued degradation of tribes and Indian people. It is time for the National Football League to formally support and push for a name change for the Washington football team.”

Redskins spokesman Tony Wyllie responded in a written statement: “With all the important issues Congress has to deal with, such as a war in Afghanistan to deficits to health care, don’t they have more important issues to worry about than a football team’s name? And given the fact that the name of Oklahoma means ‘Red People’ in Choctaw, this request is a little ironic.”

Goodell said late last month at his annual news conference at the Super Bowl that the NFL was “listening” to and “being respectful” to those who have expressed opposition to the Redskins’ name. But Goodell also said during that Jan. 31 news conference in New York that the team has “honored” Native Americans with its use of the name.

“I’ve been spending the last year talking to many of the leaders in the Native American communities,” Goodell said then. “We are listening. We are trying to make sure we understand the issues. Let me remind you: This is the name of a football team, a football team that’s had that name for 80 years and has presented the name in a way that it has honored Native Americans.”

● Related: Previous Insider posts on the team’s name

Cantwell and the committee have been talking to the league for several months. The letter comes after Goodell’s comments during his state-of-the-NFL address  before the Super Bowl took a different tone than his previous statement on the issue.

Redskins owner Daniel Snyder and other team officials have said they don’t plan to change the name.

“We recognize that there are some that don’t agree with the name, and we have listened and respected that,” Goodell said at his Super Bowl week news conference. “But if you look at the numbers, including in the Native American communities — in the Native American community polled, nine out of 10 supported the name. Eight out of 10 Americans in the general population would not like us to change the name. So we are listening. We are being respectful to people who disagree. But let’s not forget this is the name of a football team.”

The letter is significant because each lawmaker has the perch to increase the public pressure on Snyder and the Redskins.

Cantwell is chairman of Senate Indian Affairs Committee, holding both the power to hold hearings and issue subpoenas. That panel helped drive the investigation into the felonious lobbying activities of Jack Abramoff and his associates, for fleecing tribal clients.

Cole is a very popular member on both sides of the aisle and a senior member of the appropriations committee, which has in the past been used as a battleground to impose Congress’s will on certain subjects. NASCAR and the Defense Department, for instance, have battled appropriators who’ve tried to limit the Pentagon’s ability to sponsor race cars and events. Cole, a member of the Chickasaw tribe, is one of just two Native Americans in Congress, according to the Congressional Research Service.

“Saying the Washington football team ‘honored Native Americans’ perpetuates a charade that dishonors native people and their governments and erodes the reputation of the National Football League,” they wrote to Goodell. “We believe that the fact that this term does not honor — but rather disparages — Indian people and tribes is what will and should guide federal policymakers.”

An NFL spokesman said the league will respond “in an appropriate manner” when it receives the letter.

NFL officials met in October with representatives of the Oneida Indian Nation, which has expressed opposition to the Redskins’ name.

The day before Goodell’s news conference in New York, DeMaurice Smith, the executive director of the NFL Players Association, said it was appropriate for the sport’s leaders and interested parties to have a “broad discussion” about the team’s name.

“I grew up a Redskin fan and I grew up in Washington,” Smith told a Washington Post reporter after the union’s annual Super Bowl news conference. “And as we’ve said before, I think we’re in a better world if we’re not intentionally offending anyone. I think that any time we engage in a broad discussion, whether it be with fans or other interested parties about how to do our jobs better, and that might include the Redskin name, I think that’s positive.”

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