In Congress, the most controversial thing about the Washington Redskins isn't the status of quarterback Robert Griffin III's right knee, or who or what is to blame for its torn ligaments. For 10 members of Congress, the real issue is the team's name itself.
Those 10 members—including Congressional Native American Caucus cochairs Tom Cole and Betty McCollum—announced Tuesday they sent letters earlier this month to Redskins owner Dan Snyder, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, and FedEx Chairman and CEO Frederick Smith pushing for a change to the team's name.
"Native Americans throughout the country consider the term 'redskin' a racial, derogatory slur akin to the 'N-word' among African Americans or the 'W-word' among Latinos," the lawmakers wrote. And their criticism is not just limited to the Washington team, but to the entire NFL: "We must also acknowledge that the NFL will never fulfill its 'Commitment to Diversity' as long as this racial slur remains a key component of the NFL organization." You can read the full letter to Commissioner Goodell here. The letter to Dan Snyder is embedded below.
The letter isn't the only thing members of Congress are doing to force the hand of the Redskins. Nonvoting Delegate Eni Faleomavaega, D-American Samoa, put forward a bill earlier this year that would remove federal trademarks that use the term "redskin." That bill, with the mouthful name of the Non-Disparagement of Native American Persons or Peoples in Trademark Registration Act of 2013, was referred on April 15 to the House Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property, and the Internet, where it currently waits.
This isn't the first time the federal government has intervened with Washington's professional football team over race. It only took five weeks into John F. Kennedy's presidency for Interior Secretary Stewart Udall to send off a memo to the president bemoaning the Redskins' stance on racial integration:
George Marshall of the Washington Redskins is the only segregationist hold-out in professional football. He refuses to hire Negro players even thought [sic] Dallas and Houston, Texas have already broken the color bar. The Interior Department owns the ground on which the new Washington Stadium is constructed, and we are investigating to ascertain whether a no-discrimination provision could be inserted in Marshall's lease.
Udall's leveraging tactic came through. In a deal with team owner and president George Marshall, the federal government managed to force the Redskins to integrate African-American players by 1962. They soon landed Bobby Mitchell, the first black Washington professional football player.
The new bid by Congress to change the name of Washington's football team isn't as likely to succeed, especially given current owner Snyder's all-caps promise to "NEVER" alter the name. For now, the boycott of the name from Washington publications (like the Washington City Paper, which now refers to the team as "The Pigskins," or Washingtonian's many alternatives) will have to do.
This article appears in the May 29, 2013, edition of NJ Daily.