Fifty Senators Call On N.F.L. To Change Redskins Name
Mirroring an action that was taken last September by a group of House Members, half of the members of the United States Senate have sent a letter to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell asking him to change the name of the Redskins, citing the NBA’s actions against Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling as a reason for the nations biggest sports league to act:
WASHINGTON — Fifty members of the Senate have signed a letter to the N.F.L. to urge its leadership to press the Washington Redskins to change the team name in the aftermath of tough sanctions against the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers for racially charged comments.
The position embraced by half of the Senate, and the willingness of the lawmakers to sign a formal request to Commissioner Roger Goodell, escalated the fight over the name and represented an effort to put increasing pressure on the league, which receives a federal tax break, and the ownership of the team.
“The N.F.L. can no longer ignore this and perpetuate the use of this name as anything but what it is: a racial slur,” said the letter, which was circulated by Senator Maria Cantwell, Democrat of Washington, and endorsed by Senator Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada, the majority leader. “We urge the N.F.L. to formally support a name change for the Washington football team.”
Cantwell said that “we are going to find out if the N.F.L. can act against this kind of discrimination as quickly as the N.B.A. did.” She said she considered the Senate letter an important milestone.
“Listen, it is hard to get 50 people in this place to agree on anything,” she said.
Reid has made the push for the name change a top interest. He said in an interview that he could not understand the league’s resisting the senators on the name change given other pressing disputes it was navigating, including head injuries and the health of former players.
“I have 22 tribal organizations in Nevada,” Reid said. “They are not mascots. They are human beings. And this term Redskins is offensive to them.”
All but five Senate Democrats — Mark Warner and Tim Kaine of Virginia, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Mark Pryor of Arkansas — signed the letter. It was not circulated among Republicans.
N.F.L. officials said they had not received the letter. But a league spokesman, Brian McCarthy, provided a statement saying the league “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 statement said. “The name is not used by the team or the N.F.L. in any other context, though we respect those that view it differently.”
The senators said the quick action the N.B.A. took against Donald Sterling, the owner of the Clippers, should be an example to the N.F.L.
“We urge you and the National Football League to send the same clear message as the N.B.A. did: that racism and bigotry have no place in professional sports,” the letter said.
As I’ve noted before, the issue of the alleged offensiveness of the Redskins name, and the calls on ownership to change the name, or on the N.F.L. to force a name change, is one that has reared its head several times in the past. The usual course of events has been that the controversy lasts for awhile, sometimes as long as a couple of years or more, while ownership resists calls for change and the league generally demurs on the subject. The most recent push started a few years ago and has included, among things, an ongoing effort to deny the team protection under the Trademark Law because of the “offensiveness” of the name. When that effort petered out, a group of Congressmen introduced a bill that would accomplish the same thing, that bill has gone nowhere in no small part because the prospect of Congress stripping a property right from an entity in this manner would , arguably, be unconstitutional. Outside of the political sphere, several sports writers and non-sports publications have instituted the rather silly policy of never again referring to the team by its name. Additionally, both the league and team ownership have taken the steps of meeting with representatives of groups opposed to the use of the Redskins name, although nothing has come of any of those discussions.
Like Jack Kent Cooke before him, Redskins owner Daniel Snyder has made it clear that he has no intention of ever changing the team’s name. The N.F.L., meanwhile, has generally taken a non-committal position on the issue, taking pains not to offend the people who might find the Redskins name offensive but also not taking a position against the name that most likely would not be supported by the team owners that actually control the league. Given that polling has found that upwards of seven in ten Americans do not believe that a name change is necessary, it isn’t at all surprising that they would take this position. If the numbers were reversed and Snyder and the league were looking at the (unlikely) possibility of suffering in the pocketbook because of the Redskins name, then there would be much more likelihood of a name change. Indeed, as many people have pointed out, Snyder would likely make out fairly well from a name change as people rush out to replace their Redskins memorabilia with products adorned with the new team name. Of course, at the same time, all of that Redskins gear would suddenly become more valuable in the collectibles market. The reason they aren’t acting isn’t because Dan Snyder and Roger Goodell hate Native Americans or want to insult them, it’s because there is no good business reason for them to do so. No amount of pressuring from United States Senators is going to change that unless and until public opinion changes.
This is where the analogy to the Donald Sterling situation fails completely. While that story was still breaking, Matt Bernius noted that Frank DeFord had drawn the analogy between Sterling’s racist comments and the Redskins, but there is a crucial difference that DeFord ignored. In the Sterling example, the public reaction to his comments was swift, immediate, and overwhelmingly negative. More importantly, Sterling’s comments caused an immediate uproar among the NBA’a players and happened just as the league’s playoffs were beginning. Sponsors responded by disassociating themselves from the Clippers and the NBA. In other words, within days it became apparent that Sterling’s continued association with the NBA would threaten the league as a whole unless action was taken. There’s nothing similar happening with regard to the Redskins. Polls don’t show any public outcry about the name, and players have not spoken out about the matter. To the extent they have, they’ve been largely supportive of the name, such as the comments that Redskins Quaterback Robert Griffin III has made on the matter. Unless that changes, the NFL is not going to act and, quite honestly, I don’t see any reason why they should.
On a final note, I would think that members of the United States Senate would better use their time taking care of the things the Constitution charges them with taking care of rather than trying to publicly shame a private business like this. If the Redskins want to change their name, and maybe someday they will, it should be their choice, not because a bunch of Senators pressured them into doing it.
Here’s the letter: