Lawmakers Threaten NFL’s Tax-Exempt Status Over ‘Redskins’ Name

“The National Football League is on the wrong side of history,” write two lawmakers.

Customers win a signed football during a raffle during the Xbox One Gaming Tournament at the Microsoft store at Tyson's Corner on November 23, 2013 in Tysons Corner, Virginia.
National Journal
Elahe Izadi
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Elahe Izadi
Feb. 10, 2014, 5:35 a.m.

Some mem­bers of Con­gress have long been un­happy with the name of Wash­ing­ton’s foot­ball team, the Red­skins. But in a new let­ter to NFL Com­mis­sion­er Ro­ger Goodell about the team name, Sen. Maria Can­t­well and Rep. Tom Cole bring up an as­pect of the league that Con­gress may be able to af­fect: its tax-ex­empt status.

“The Na­tion­al Foot­ball League is on the wrong side of his­tory. 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 law­makers write in a let­ter dated Monday. “It is time for the Na­tion­al Foot­ball League to form­ally sup­port and push for a name change for the Wash­ing­ton foot­ball team.”

Can­t­well, a Wash­ing­ton state Demo­crat, chairs the Sen­ate In­di­an Af­fairs Com­mit­tee. Cole, an Ok­lahoma Re­pub­lic­an and only one of two Nat­ive Amer­ic­an mem­bers of Con­gress, sits on the House Ap­pro­pri­ations Com­mit­tee.

The two law­makers write that “Red­skins” is “derog­at­ory slang,” de­term­ined as such by the Pat­ent and Trade­mark Of­fice. “The NFL can no longer ig­nore this and per­petu­ate the use of this name as any­thing but what it is: a ra­cial slur,” they write.

No hear­ings have been sched­uled on the mat­ter.

Now, Goodell has said re­cently the league is “listen­ing” and “be­ing re­spect­ful” to those who op­pose the name. But he also said the team “honored” Nat­ive Amer­ic­ans. And team own­er Dan Snyder has been adam­ant against a name change. In fact, the team is ex­pec­ted to launch today “Com­munity Voices,” to show­case sup­port from Nat­ive Amer­ic­ans for the team name.

In a state­ment, Red­skins spokes­man Tony Wyl­lie shot back at Can­t­well and Cole, say­ing, “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? And giv­en the fact that the name of Ok­lahoma means ‘Red People’ in Choctaw, this re­quest is a little iron­ic.”

The law­makers’ lettter reads:

Dear Com­mis­sion­er Goodell:

We are writ­ing to ex­press our dis­ap­point­ment with the Na­tion­al Foot­ball League’s stance on the name of the Wash­ing­ton foot­ball team. We also wish to re­gister our ob­jec­tions to your pre-Su­per Bowl press con­fer­ence on Janu­ary 31, 2014, at which you de­fen­ded the Wash­ing­ton team name as an “hon­or” to Nat­ive Amer­ic­ans. It is, in fact, an in­sult to Nat­ive Amer­ic­ans. We are call­ing on you and the NFL to take a form­al po­s­i­tion in sup­port of a name change.

You have met with lead­ers of the Na­tion­al Con­gress of Amer­ic­an In­di­ans, an or­gan­iz­a­tion that rep­res­ents more than 250 tribes and mil­lions of Nat­ive Amer­ic­ans. They ag­gress­ively sup­port a name change as they find the Wash­ing­ton foot­ball name to be ra­cially of­fens­ive. (ht­tp://www.ncai.org/re­sources/res­ol­u­tions/com­mend­ing-ef­forts-to-elim­in­ate-ra­cist-ste­reo­types-in-sports-and-call­ing-on-the-u-s-pres­id­ent-and-con­gress-to-com­bat-these-con­tinu­ing-af­fronts-to-nat­ive-peoples).

For you to pre­tend that the name is de­fens­ible based on dec­ade-old pub­lic opin­ion polling flies in the face of our con­sti­tu­tion­ally pro­tec­ted gov­ern­ment-to-gov­ern­ment re­la­tion­ship with tribes.

The Na­tion­al Con­gress of Amer­ic­an In­di­ans rep­res­ents tri­bal gov­ern­ments that ful­fill the gov­ern­ment-to-gov­ern­ment re­la­tion­ship with the United States gov­ern­ment. This re­la­tion­ship is pro­tec­ted in our Con­sti­tu­tion. Say­ing the Wash­ing­ton foot­ball team “honored Nat­ive Amer­ic­ans” per­petu­ates a charade that dis­hon­ors nat­ive people and their gov­ern­ments and erodes the repu­ta­tion of the Na­tion­al Foot­ball League. We be­lieve that the fact that this term does not hon­or — but rather dis­par­ages — In­di­an people and tribes is what will and should guide fed­er­al poli­cy­makers.

The ter­min­o­logy used by the Wash­ing­ton foot­ball team has been de­term­ined to be a slur. On Decem­ber 29, 2013, the Pat­ent and Trade­mark Of­fice, the agency charged with de­term­in­ing wheth­er a word is a slur and can be pro­tec­ted in com­merce, de­term­ined that this term is a “derog­at­ory slang” term that refers to and is con­sidered of­fens­ive to Amer­ic­an In­di­ans in a case of a busi­ness ven­ture seek­ing to trade­mark the term.

In 1999, the Pat­ent and Trade­mark Of­fice re­fused to re­gister the Wash­ing­ton foot­ball team’s trade­mark be­cause the agency found the term dis­paraged In­di­an people. Neither the league nor the team should take com­fort be­hind a tech­nic­al­ity that pre­ven­ted the agency’s de­cision from be­ing en­forced. The Pat­ent and Trade­mark Of­fice is soon to act on a new case dir­ectly tied to the team’s trade­mark, brought by sev­er­al young In­di­an people.

The NFL can no longer ig­nore this and per­petu­ate the use of this name as any­thing but what it is: a ra­cial slur. It is clear that you haven’t heard the lead­ing voices of this coun­try — and not just In­di­an Coun­try. Vir­tu­ally every ma­jor civil rights or­gan­iz­a­tion in Amer­ica has spoken out in op­pos­i­tion to this name in­clud­ing the NAACP, the Anti-De­fam­a­tion League, the Rain­bow Co­ali­tion and the League of United Lat­in Amer­ic­an Cit­izens.

The Na­tion­al Foot­ball League is on the wrong side of his­tory. 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. It is time for the Na­tion­al Foot­ball League to form­ally sup­port and push for a name change for the Wash­ing­ton foot­ball team.

Sin­cerely,

Maria Can­t­well Tom Cole

United States Sen­at­or U.S. House of Rep­res­ent­at­ives

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