News & Politics

Members of Congress Urge NFL to Support a Redskins Name Change

Two lawmakers suggest the NFL’s tax-exempt status should be reviewed if it doesn’t.

Photograph by Flickr user Kevin Coles.

Senator Maria Cantwell and Representative Tom Cole are the latest high-profile figures to add themselves to the list of people who say Washington’s NFL team should be called something other than a word generally considered to be a racial slur. But Cantwell and Cole are adding a new tactic to their protest by targeting the NFL’s tax-exempt status as long as the league defends the name “Redskins.”

“The National Football league is on the wrong side of history,” Cantwell, a Washington state Democrat, and Cole, an Oklahoma Republican, write in their letter to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. “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.”

While individual football teams are taxed as business entities, the NFL itself, which is classified by the Internal Revenue Service as a “business league,” is exempt.

Cantwell and Cole also respond to Goodell’s remarks at a press conference last month ahead of the Super Bowl, in which the commissioner defended the Washington team by citing a 2004 poll of Native Americans in which only 9 percent said they found the name offensive. “This is the name of a football team, a football team that has had that name for 80 years,” Goodell said. “That has presented the name in a way that is honorable to Native Americans.”

In their letter, Cantwell and Cole are unconvinced by Goodell’s logic. “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 write. “The National Football League can no longer ignore this and perpetuate the use of this name as anything but what it is: a racial slur.”

Tony Wyllie, the team’s spokesman, tells Washingtonian in an e-mail that Cole and Cantwell should buzz off.

“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?” Wyllie writes. “And given the fact that the name of Oklahoma means “Red People” in Choctaw, this request is a little ironic.”

However, the team’s name might actually be more in Cantwell’s and Cole’s purviews than Wyllie is willing to grant. Cantwell chairs the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, while Cole is a member of the Chikasaw Nation.

In an effort to counter the ongoing criticism—or maybe just because it’s mid-February and a football team needs something to do—the Washington team is also pushing out a press release full of approving quotes from people identifying themselves as Native Americans. The press release, titled “Community Voices,” includes statements from Virginia and Maryland residents who agree with the team’s assessment that its name is an honorific. The team also claims that owner Dan Snyder has received more than 7,000 letters and e-mails since the beginning of the 2013 season.

“Community Voices” feels like a rehash of something the team did last February, when it responded to a Smithsonian symposium about Native American imagery in sports by trotting out profiles of high schools that use its name. But it’s not too surprising to see the franchise employ such an uncreative defense. After all, the team had the second-most ineffective defense during the 2013 season. At least the on- and off-field operations are consistent.

Letter to Roger Goodell

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.