WASHINGTON — A U.S. senator threatened the NFL with legislation over Washington’s nickname, a letter was dispatched to the other 31 team owners, and the issue was linked to the league’s others recent troubles Tuesday as the anti-“Redskins” movement took its cause to Capitol Hill.
In a news conference that featured Native American, civil rights and religious leaders, Sen. Maria Cantwell took aim at the NFL’s pocketbook by announcing she will introduce a bill to strip the league’s tax-exempt status because it has not taken action over the Redskins name. While prospects for such a bill becoming law would be tenuous, the inevitable hearings before lawmakers would enhance the spotlight on a movement that has gained substantial momentum over the last two years.
“The NFL needs to join the rest of America in the 21st Century,” said Cantwell, D-Wash., the former chairwoman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. “We can no longer tolerate this attitude toward Native Americans. This is not about team tradition. This is about right and wrong.”
Overall, the message from the “Change the Mascot” leaders was that they don’t plan to go away, despite Redskins owner Dan Snyder’s vow not to change the name. They presented a letter that will be sent to every NFL owner except Snyder, asking each to use his “position of authority” to end the league’s “promotion of a dictionary-defined racial slur.”
Oneida Nation representative Ray Halbritter said he hoped an owner will take a bold position against the name. He cited Brooklyn Dodgers executive Branch Rickey, who integrated major league baseball by signing Jackie Robinson, and longtime Washington Wizards owner Abe Pollin, who changed his NBA’s team from Bullets because of the violence associated with the term.
“We’re looking for the Branch Rickey, looking for Abe Pollin,” Halbritter said. “They’re out there. We know the owners don’t share in this, but they share in the profits.”
Halbritter had harsh words for the league as a whole, referencing the NFL’s handling of health problems suffered by former players, as well as the recent Ray Rice domestic violence saga and the child abuse charge levied against Adrian Peterson.
“The NFL is currently facing an integrity crisis. … While these are different issues, they are joined by a common thread of showing commercial and moral arrogance and a blatant lack of respect for those being negatively impacted,” Halbritter said.
The NFL did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Earlier Tuesday, the league announced that it has hired a former White House official to help the league with legislative issues. Cynthia Hogan will be the league’s senior vice president of public policy and government affairs and will be based in Washington.
Redskins spokesman Tony Wyllie responded to Cantwell’s proposed legislation by citing a poll in the team’s favor.
“Our position remains consistent with more than 80 percent of Americans who do not want to change the Washington Redskins name,” Wyllie said.
The debate over the name could influence the Redskins’ plans to build a new stadium when their lease at FedEx Field, located in D.C.’s Maryland suburbs, expires in 2027. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the district’s delegate to Congress, said the team would have a hard time moving back to the city unless the name is changed.
“I would make every effort in the Congress to make sure they could not come back with that name,” Norton said.
Snyder has said that the Redskins name and logo is meant to honor Native Americans, and the team has promoted American Indians who say they aren’t offended by the name or by the use of the term “redskin” in general.
Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., offered a counterargument by displaying an 1863 newspaper front page that included the sentence: “The state reward for dead Indians has been increased to $200 for every red-skin sent to Purgatory.”
“It can only be money that motivates the NFL with a slur that harkens back to the darkest days, when a white man could get paid for hunting down and murdering an Indian in cold blood for money,” McCollum said. “This team name is a reminder of that brutal violence.”