Washington • Two members of Congress plan to send a strongly worded letter to the commissioner of the National Football League on Monday urging him to support changing the name of the Washington Redskins because it offends American Indians, with one lawmaker saying she might reconsider the league’s tax-exempt status if it does not comply.
Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., chairwoman of the Indian Affairs Committee, said in an interview Sunday that lawmakers would "definitely" examine the NFL’s tax-exempt status and other ways to pressure the league.
"You’re getting a tax break for educational purposes, but you’re still embracing a name that people see as a slur and encouraging it," Cantwell said.
In a copy of the letter released Sunday, Cantwell and Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., a member of the Native American Caucus, chided NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell for his recent remark that the name of the team, based near Washington, D.C., "honored" American Indians.
"The NFL can no longer ignore this and perpetuate the use of this name as anything but what it is: a racial slur," they said.
Goodell has been careful to say he is attentive to the concerns of those who disapprove of the name. But at a news conference before the Super Bowl last week, he said polls showed support, including among American Indians, for keeping it.
"Let me remind you, this is the name of a football team, a football team that has had that name for 80 years and has presented the name in a way that has honored Native Americans," he said.
Cantwell said those comments signaled that the NFL had decided to defend the name, which organizations including the NAACP and the Anti-Defamation League oppose.
"I think they’ve been hearing from various tribal leaders, and we thought they were understanding this issue, but clearly this press conference shows that they don’t," she said.
An NFL spokesman said the league would not comment before receiving the letter. But a spokesman for the Redskins took issue. "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?" spokesman Tony Wyllie wrote in an email. "And given the fact that the name of Oklahoma means ‘red people’ in Choctaw, this request is a little ironic."
Taking a strong tone in their letter, Cantwell and Cole, a member of the Chickasaw Nation, mentioned the NFL’s tax-exempt status, which it has as a nonprofit trade organization. (The teams are not tax-exempt.)
"The National Football League is on the wrong side of history," they wrote. "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."
The letter also refers to a recent case, unrelated to the NFL, in which the Patent and Trademark Office rejected a trademark application that included the term "redskin" because, the office said, it is a "derogatory slang term." Cantwell said Sunday that lawmakers would consider the roles of that office, the Federal Communications Commission and other agencies in urging the team to change its name.
Ten members of Congress sent a similar letter to Goodell in May after introducing a bill that would require the director of the Patent and Trademark Office to cancel any registration that used the term "redskin" in reference to Native Americans for commercial purposes.
In October, President Barack Obama said that while he did not think fans were trying to offend Native Americans, if he owned the team he would consider renaming it.
The team’s owner, Daniel Snyder, has said he will not change the name. Days after Obama’s comments, Snyder wrote a letter to fans about the values, traditions and pride associated with the name the team has borne since 1933.
"I’ve listened carefully to the commentary and perspectives on all sides, and I respect the feelings of those who are offended by the team name," he said. "But I hope such individuals also try to respect what the name means, not only for all of us in the extended Washington Redskins family, but among Native Americans too."
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