Fifty United States Senators have called for a change to change the name of the Washington Redskins in a letter to National Football League commissioner Roger Goodell released Thursday. The letter, first reported by the New York Times, cites the NBA’s swift action against the racism of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling and asks Goodell and the NFL to take similar action against a name Native American activists call a “dictionary-defined slur.”
The letter echoes the remarks Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) made on the Senate floor immediately after the NBA announced that it would ban Sterling, who made racist comments about African Americans, for life and would seek to force a sale of the team.
“Today, we urge you and the National Football League to send the same clear message as the NBA did: that racism and bigotry have no place in professional sports. It’s time for the NFL to endorse a name change for the Washington, D.C. football team,” the letter states.
“Now is the time for the NFL to act,” it continues. “What message does it send to punish slurs against African Americans while endorsing slurs against Native Americans?”
Only five Democrats — Virginia Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, Indiana Sen. Joe Donnelly, West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, and Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor — did not sign the letter. Kaine and Warner’s absences are notable, as both represent the state in which the team is based.
The 50 signatures mean that a majority of the U.S. Senate has now spoken out against the name. Arizona Sen. John McCain (R) did not sign the letter, which the Times said was not circulated among Republicans, but challenged its continued use in the wake of the Sterling ban. “If they think it’s that offensive and terrible, I would certainly — probably — I’m not the owner and he has the rights of an owner. But frankly I would probably change the name,” McCain said during an appearance on The Dan Patrick Show earlier this month. “Myself I’m not offended. You’re not offended. But there are Native Americans who are.”
This is the third letter from Senate and congressional leaders to the NFL in the last year. Reps. Tom Cole (R-OK) and Betty McCollum (D-MN), co-chairs of the Congressional Native American Caucus, and eight other members of Congress sent a letter demanding a change to the NFL in May 2013. Cole and Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), the former chair of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, sent a similar letter to the league in February. President Obama is on record saying he would consider changing the team’s name, and other congressional leaders, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), have called on the team to drop the name.
The Oneida Indian Nation of New York, which has led a public campaign against the name since the beginning of the 2013 NFL season and National Congress of American Indians, which has opposed the name for more than 50 years, “applauded” the letter in a statement.
“The name of Washington’s NFL team is widely recognized as a racial slur,” NCAI executive director Jackie Plata said in the 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.”
“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,” Oneida representative Ray Halbritter said. “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.”
Pressure from the federal government is not new for the Washington Redskins. In the 1960s, the team became last in the NFL to integrate its roster only because the Kennedy administration threatened to deny the team the use of Washington’s RFK Stadium until it signed a black player.