Senator To Target NFL’s Tax Exempt Status In Effort To Change ‘Redskins’ Name

Sen. Maria Cantwell (left) with NCAI president Brian Cladoosby at Tuesday’s Change The Mascot press conference. CREDIT: AP
Sen. Maria Cantwell (left) with NCAI president Brian Cladoosby at Tuesday’s Change The Mascot press conference. CREDIT: AP

Sen. Maria Cantwell plans to introduce legislation that would threaten the NFL’s tax exempt status as part of a broader effort to force a change of the name of Washington’s football team, she announced Tuesday at a press conference on Capitol Hill.

Cantwell, a Democrat from Washington, and Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK) had previously threatened the league’s tax status in a letter to commissioner Roger Goodell that called on the league to force Washington owner Daniel Snyder to drop the “Redskins” name. But with little indication that the NFL or Snyder is listening, Cantwell will actually introduce the legislation “in the next few days,” she said Tuesday.

Cantwell, who has met with NFL officials including Goodell to discuss the name in the past, would not go into much detail about the legislation, saying only that it would be more narrowly targeted than similar but broader legislation targeting the tax exemptions of professional sports leagues Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) has introduced in the past. Cantwell said she had not enlisted co-sponsors as of yet but would seek them out — and that there would be interest among her House and Senate colleagues — once the legislation moves toward introduction.

The NFL has tax exempt status as a 501(c)(6) charitable organization, a classification used by most trade and industry organizations, though the exemptions used by professional sports leagues have come under scrutiny because of their large revenues and the argument that they do not promote their general industry (or sport) but their particular brand of it. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) introduced legislation Tuesday that would repeal the tax exempt status of 10 professional sports leagues, the New York Times reported.


It seems unlikely that the bill will become law any time soon, especially as Congress nears recess for November elections. Coburn’s bill has gone nowhere, and a Republican tax reform plan that includes a provision similar to Coburn’s legislation has received little attention beyond its committee. But Cantwell hopes the legislation could work as a threat that gets the attention of NFL team owners and the league itself.

“The effect will be that everybody would be affected, so if this team continued to use this name, then all of the NFL would be affected,” Cantwell said. “The way the draft is now, it would be narrowly focused on the use of this name.”

Cantwell’s legislation was just a segment of the overall plans to continue targeting the name that members of Congress, tribal and religious leaders, and civil rights advocates outlined at Tuesday’s press conference, which occurred during Tribal Unity Impact Days, an event organized by the National Congress of American Indians to assemble tribal organizations to discuss issues facing Native American communities.

The Change The Mascot campaign, led by NCAI and the Oneida Indian Nation of New York, also highlighted the league’s tax exempt status in a letter to all 31 owners that calls on them to stand up against the name.

“As one of the 31 owners of the National Football League, you are part of an institution that has been granted special tax and regulatory treatment by the United States government,” the letter states. “Such privileges, however, come with special responsibilities — one of them being to play a constructive role against prejudice and for equality.”


“We are writing today to request that you use your position of authority in the NFL to put an end to the league’s promotion of a dictionary-defined racial slur as the Washington franchise’s name,” it continues. “The NFL’s continued use of this racial slur is not just about one particular team. The league is promoting this racial slur with the resources of every team, including yours, which makes it a league-wide crisis.”

The letter also notes that NFL bylaws allow owners to “initiate disciplinary action” against another owner “who is guilty of conduct detrimental” to the league.

“Clearly, Washington team owner Dan Snyder’s continued promotion of this racial slur represents such conduct,” the letter says.

It is the second letter the Change The Mascot campaign has sent this year, after a preseason letter to media outlets that called on them to quit using the name in print and on-air. The campaign also ran radio ads in Houston and on one national station before Washington’s first game against the Houston Texans that were similar to the ads the campaign ran throughout the 2013 NFL season when it first launched.

“We’re looking for our Branch Rickey, our Abe Pollin,” Ray Halbritter, Oneida’s representative who has led the fight against the name, said, referencing the Brooklyn Dodgers general manager who signed Jackie Robinson to break baseball’s color barrier and the former Washington Bullets owner who changed the team’s name at a time when the capital led the nation in gun-related homicides.

Halbritter told ThinkProgress that he had not seen indications that any specific owner was ready to stand up against the name, but that he was sure one would speak out eventually.


“It’s not an attack on them,” Halbritter said. “It’s an attack on an issue that I think sometimes it takes people time to understand. And I know they profit from it, so there’s an economic argument which even makes it harder. But I think ultimately people will do the right thing, and I know owners want to do the right thing.”

Aside from Cantwell, the campaign will continue to have allies in Congress. Both Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN), the co-chair of the Congressional Native American Caucus, and Eleanor Holmes Norton, D.C.’s delegate to Congress, spoke at the press conference.

McCollum said that she and Native American leaders plan to march against the name before Washington’s game against the Minnesota Vikings on Nov. 1. That will look similar to a protest against the team that took place in Minneapolis last year, with a twist: the University of Minnesota, which is hosting the game while the Vikings build a new stadium, has already asked the team to wear retro uniforms that do not feature the name or the logo and to not have the logo on merchandise or programming for the game. Those efforts are ongoing, McCollum said. McCollum also said she will reiterate her unanswered call for Vikings owner Zygi Wilf to speak out against the name.

With Snyder seeking a new stadium to replace Maryland’s 17-year-old FedEx Field, efforts to force a change if the team tries to secure land inside the District of Columbia’s borders could continue as well. Holmes Norton said during the press conference that she “would make every effort in Congress to make sure that they could not come back with that name.”

Washington became the last team to integrate its roster in the 1960s when the federal Dept. of Interior threatened not to let it play at Robert F. Kennedy Stadium, which sits on a possible site for a new stadium.

“It is federal land,” Holmes Norton said afterward. “If we wouldn’t allow a team that was segregated to play on it, I don’t believe we can possibly let a team that uses a racist name to play on it.”

Religious leaders will continue their efforts during the 2014 season too. Rev. John R. Hickenback of the United Church of Christ, where a regional conference passed a resolution opposing the name this year, said at the press conference that his church will urge congregants to boycott Washington memorabilia and games to challenge the use of the name. Rev. Graylan Hagler of Washington’s Plymouth United Church of Christ said that he will continue his efforts to expand awareness of the issues created by the name among religious leaders in the local area. NAACP senior vice president Hilary Shelton and Nancy Zirkin, the vice president of the Leadership Council on Civil and Human Rights, will also continue working alongside Native American tribes and organizations to challenge the name.

Snyder has maintained that he will “NEVER” change the name, though the team has engaged in its own campaign over the last year, hiring prominent political communications consultants, starting a foundation, and launching a web site that enlisted the help of former players to defend the name. The NFL, meanwhile, has shown similar resolve, with Goodell reiterating his support for the name during a pre-Super Bowl press conference in February. Only one high-ranking NFL official has spoken out publicly against it: Mark Murphy, the CEO of the publicly-owned Green Bay Packers, called the name “very derogatory to a lot of people” before the Packers played Washington last season.