A painful controversy concerning the NFL’s Washington franchise turned political yesterday, when US Senate Democrats sent a letter to the National Football League, asking Commissioner Roger Goodell to compel team owner Dan Snyder to change the name.
“Tribes have worked for generations to preserve the right to speak their languages and perform their sacred ceremonies,” reads the letter, written by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Maria Cantwell of Washington state. “Yet every Sunday during football season, the Washington, D.C. football team mocks their culture.”
Both Reid and Cantwell have been on the record about their distaste for the team’s name. Now they’ve added the signatures of 48 of their colleagues—all but two of whom are Democrats. (Angus King of Maine and Bernie Sanders of Vermont are independents who caucus with Democrats.)
The letter repeatedly cites the action taken this month by the National Basketball Association in expelling Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling after he was heard on tape making racially insulting comments. The New York Times reports that Cantwell and Reid only circulated the letter among the Democratic caucus and did not share it with any Republican members, potentially turning one of the ugliest chapters in American sports into a partisan issue.
Snyder has said repeatedly and sometimes loudly that he has no plans to change the name, and Goodell, who grew up cheering for Washington, has backed him up. The league stood by Snyder again in a statement issued Thursday morning.
“We have not received the letter, but the NFL has long demonstrated a commitment to progressive leadership on issues of diversity and inclusion, both on and off the field,” NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy writes in an email. “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 team name is not used by the team or the NFL in any other context, though we respect those that view it differently.”
The team’s name has its roots in an attempt by the franchise’s original owner, George Preston Marshall, to “honor” William Henry Dietz, the team’s coach from 1933 to 1934, who claimed Sioux ancestry that is still disputed today.
Although both senators from Maryland, where the team plays, signed the document, Tim Kaine and Mark Warner of Virginia, where the team is based, did not.
The letter also charges the NFL with having an inconsistent anti-racism policy. The league recently announced it would start fining players who use slurs against African-Americans. Most dictionaries define “Redskin” as a derogatory term for Native Americans.
“What message does it send to punish slurs against African Americans while endorsing slurs against Native Americans?” the letter reads.