Members of Congress pile pressure on Redskins to change their name

In a letter to NFL commissioner, two members of Congress hint the league’s tax-exempt status could be in jeopardy

Two members of Congress called on NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to take a formal position in support of a name change for the Washington Redskins.
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Two members of Congress sent a letter to National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell on Monday imploring the sports league to abandon the controversial name of the Washington, D.C., team, the Redskins, and hinting that the NFL’s tax-exempt status could be in jeopardy.

The Redskins’ 80-year-old name came under renewed fire last year, with civil rights groups, including the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) calling it degrading and racist — despite Goodell’s repeated assertion that the name is an honorific.

“The NFL can no longer ignore this and perpetuate the use of this name as anything but what it is: a racial slur," Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., wrote in the letter. “The National Football League is on the wrong side of history.”

Cantwell, the chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, and Cole, a member of the Native American caucus, also hinted at the possibility that the team’s refusal to consider a name change could affect the league’s tax-exempt status.

Despite accruing billions in annual revenue, the NFL is classified as a trade organization and therefore tax exempt.

“It is not appropriate for this multibillion dollar 501(c)(6) tax-exempt organization to perpetuate and profit from the continued degradation of tribes and Indian people,” Cantwell and Cole wrote.

Cantwell expanded on that possibility on Sunday, when a copy of the letter was released, in an interview with The New York Times.

“You’re getting a tax break for educational purposes, but you’re still embracing a name that people see as a slur and encouraging it,” she said.

The Washington Redskins dismissed the letter in an emailed statement to Al Jazeera on Monday.

“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?” the statement read. 

“And given the fact that the name of (Cole's home state of) Oklahoma means ‘red people’ in Choctaw, this request is a little ironic.”

At his annual state-of-the-league news conference on Super Bowl weekend, Goodell reiterated the position held by Redskins owner Daniel Snyder that most people, including Native Americans, do not oppose the nickname.

“We recognize that there are some that don’t agree with the name, and we have listened and respected that,” Goodell said shortly before the league’s championship game. “But if you look at the numbers, including in the Native American communities — in the Native American community polled, 9 out of 10 supported the name.”

A 2004 poll indicated a large degree of indifference to the embattled name, even among Native Americans, but Cantwell and Cole disputed the validity of that survey.

“For you to pretend that the name is defensible based on decade-old public opinion polling flies in the face of our constitutionally protected government-to-government relationship with tribes,” they wrote to Goodell.

In a resolution posted to its website, the NCAI called for an end to Native American stereotypes in team names and imagery, with specific reference to the Washington Redskins, the largest and most lucrative entity under scrutiny.

“The NCAI commends its sister organizations for working together on behalf of the vast majority of Native peoples to consign these stereotypes and cultural distortions to museums and history,” the resolution read.

The Redskins name controversy has spawned a nationwide debate about outdated and stereotyped names and mascots and pressured local leagues, high schools and college teams to drop potentially offensive names.

In January the Houston school board barred the use of team names that refer to Native Americans, including the Lamar High School Redskins — a decision that could reverberate across the country.

Last year, the University of North Dakota abandoned its Fighting Sioux nickname.

Michael Pizzi contributed reporting.

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