Lawmakers say Redskins should change name without congressional strong arm

While several local members of Congress said they support a name change for the Washington Redskins football franchise, it does not appear that there is currently the political support needed to carry a formal congressional action to compel the team to change its name.

The long-fought battle over the Redskins name -- which several national groups, including the Oneida Indian Nation, have deemed racist -- resurfaced this week when Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Rep. Tom Cole (R.-Okla.) wrote a letter to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell urging the league to formally support a name-change for the franchise.

Redskins owner Daniel Snyder has previously said that, despite mounting pressure, he does not plan to change the name.

That letter re-sparked a conversation about what, if any, action Congress could take to force a name-change, but several House members whose districts include the sections of Maryland that comprise the heart of the Redskins fan base said that -- while they support a name change -- they do not believe Congress should formally act in attempt to influence the change.

“As a fan, Congressman Van Hollen believes the best approach to the overall question would be for the team to voluntarily change its name – as the Washington Bullets did - but does not believe that Congressional action should be taken to force that change," Bridgett Frey, a spokeswoman for  Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), said in a statement.

That sentiment was echoed by several other members of the Maryland delegation. They support a name change, they stressed, but think it's a decision that should be made by Redskins ownership without an action of Congress.

“I think it would be wise and appropriate for Dan Snyder to consider changing the name," said Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), in a statement. "I hope there will continue to be conversations that lead to resolution on this issue."

But the majority of the remaining members of the Maryland and Virginia delegations -- some citing allegiances to the Baltimore Ravens -- could not immediately provide statements on their stance on the renewed push for a name change or said it was an issue that is not on their radar screen. 

“I don’t consider it part of my role in Congress to weigh in on sports issues,” said Rep.  Andy Harris (R-Md.), a Ravens fan, in a statement.

Yet, the stance that the team should change its name represents a public shift for local lawmakers. Last year, when contacted by the Post, none of the local members of Congress were willing to say that the team should undertake a name change.

And, even with Van Hollen, Hoyer and Delaney now publicly backing a change to the franchise name, the bulk of the delegation -- including all four senators representing Maryland and Virginia -- remains mum.

"Senator Cardin has not taken a formal position on the name of the Washington football team," said  Sue Walitsky, a spokeswoman for Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.) ."Thus far, inquiries have come from media only."

In a statement, a Redskins spokesman brushed aside Monday's letter to NFL officials -- asking: "don’t they have more important issues to worry about than a football team’s name?" -- while, in a statement released Monday, the Oneida Indian Nation doubled-down on its opposition to the franchise's name.

"The NFL is a publicly subsidized $9 billion-a-year brand with global reach, and it is using those public resources and that brand to promote a dictionary defined racial slur. ... Congress has a responsibility to the American people to put an end to this kind of taxpayer-subsidized bigotry," Ray Halbritter, the leader of the Oneida Indian Nation of New York, said in the statement. "We are thrilled to have these congressional leaders from both parties speaking out."

Central to the debate over the team name is whether or not Native Americans are actually offended by it and, despite seemingly wide-agreement that it is insensitive, whether there is actually a groundswell of support for a name change.

Team management has previously cited a 10-year-old survey of Native Americans that found 90 percent were "not offended" by the word Redskin as used by the football team. Only 9 percent of the Native Americans surveyed in the 2004 National Annenberg Election Study said that they were offended by the team name.

Among the public overall, high-profile opposition to the name from politicians and other public figures has yet to cause a major shift in attitudes. Fully 83 percent of Americans said the Redskins should not change their name in Associated Press-GfK poll conducted online in January, only six-points shy of the 89 percent who said this in a 1992 Washington Post-ABC News poll asking the same question.

And in the D.C. region, a 2013 Washington Post poll found 66 percent saying the name is not intended to be offensive and should not be changed, while 28 percent favored a switch. Local loyalty persists even as the same poll found 56 percent of those who opposed a name change saying “Redskin” was an inappropriate way to describe a Native American Indian.

The letter from Cantwell and Cole 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.”

It's delivery spawned renewed discussion of the team name debate on Monday, with some speculating that the combined stature of the letter's two signatories -- Cantwell the chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee and Cole a popular member of Congress who is a senior member of the appropriations committee -- could prompt action calling for a name change by the full legislative body. 

However, while their bosses expressed public support for a name change, several aides to members of Maryland's congressional delegation said they do not expect any official action to be taken by Congress.

“Congressman Cole is one of the most respected and thoughtful members of the House and I hope that his point of view is taken seriously by the NFL." said Rep. John Delaney (D-Md.) in a statement provided to The Post. "I believe Representative Cole and Senator Cantwell did the right thing by writing to the commissioner, as I believe that the best solution is for the organization to voluntarily change the name with the full support of the NFL."

Wesley Lowery covers Capitol Hill for The Fix and Post Politics.
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