The calls for a name change by the Washington Redskins intensified Thursday. In the most extensive effort yet by Capitol Hill lawmakers to convince the NFL and the team to budge on the issue, 50 Democratic members of the U.S. Senate sent letters to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell urging him and the league to endorse a change of the Redskins’ name.
“The NFL can no longer ignore this and perpetuate the use of this name as anything but what it is: a racial slur,” said one of the letters, which was signed by 49 senators. “We urge the NFL to formally support and push for a name change for the Washington football team.”
The letter cited the NBA’s recently imposed lifetime ban of Donald Sterling, asking Goodell and the NFL “to send the same clear message as the NBA did: that racism and bigotry have no place in professional sports.”
Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the Senate majority leader who has advocated previously for a name change, said the letter is “sure not going to do any harm” to the efforts to compel a name change and added: “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. 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.”
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) wrote a separate letter to Goodell. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) vowed to continue pushing the issue. In a speech on the Senate floor Thursday afternoon, she requested that other colleagues contact the league office about the team name either by signing the existing letter or by writing one of their own.
“I’m convinced that if each member of this body speaks on this issue and is forceful in their resolve, that we can help initiate change,” Cantwell said on the Senate floor.
While this week’s letter was exclusively distributed to and signed by Democrats, Cantwell asked Senators from both sides of the aisle to weigh in on the issue.
“We had to create momentum,” she said in a subsequent telephone interview Thursday. “This was the easiest way to create the momentum. Now we can hopefully get our colleagues to think more seriously about this and to sign on, too.”
Virginia’s Tim Kaine and Mark Warner were among the five Democrats in the Senate who did not sign either letter to Goodell. The Redskins practice in the state, with their regular season training facility in Ashburn and their training camp in Richmond.
Maryland senators Ben Cardin and Barbara Mikulski signed the letter. The Redskins play their home games at FedEx Field in Landover.
An aide to Kaine said he has been publicly supportive of a name change for months but that he had concerns about the tone of the letter sent by the Senate Democrats.
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.”
The NFL showed no immediate signs of changing its stance.
The league issued a written statement that said: “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.”
The Redskins declined comment Thursday. Redskins owner Daniel Snyder, who in March started the Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation to benefit Native Americans, has said the team will never change the name.
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 in a written statement. “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 in a written statement: “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.”
Dan Steinberg, Ed O’Keefe and Cindy Boren contributed to this report.