Politics has converged with sports in the nation’s capital as 50 U.S. Senators – all Democrats — signed a letter to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell urging the league to change the Washington Redskins name.
This is welcome news – and a significant development in the national crusade to force Redskins owner Daniel Synder to change the team name that many Native Americans, whites, Hispanics and African-Americans say is racist.
The move by members of the U.S. Senate last week sends a loud and powerful message to Goodell and Synder, especially at a time when the NBA is forcing Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling to sell his team after he made a series of racist remarks directed toward African-Americans.
“Today, we urge you and the National Football League to send the same clear message as the NBA did: that racism and bigotry have no place in professional sports,” the letter said. “It’s time for the NFL to endorse a name change for the Washington, D.C. football team. “The despicable comments made by Mr. Sterling have opened up a national conversation about race relations. We believe this conversation is an opportunity for the NFL to take action to remove the racial slur from the name of one of its marquee franchises.”
This is a big deal. Will the senators force Goodell to take action? Probably not. Will they force Synder to change the name? No, not today. Synder has dug in his heels, vowing to keep the Redskins name. But I do believe that eventually Synder will cave and we will look back years from now and point to the leadership by members of the U.S. Senate as a defining moment in this crusade.
After all, these are not just a group of guys from a sports bar screaming at the NFL, these are prominent, influential and affluent politicians who carry some weight in this town. Not one Republican signed the letter – no surprise there – since the GOP has no modern-day history of speaking out against racism in America.
So far, the NFL has stood behind Snyder and issued its own statement in response to the letter from the senators.
“We have not received the letter, but the NFL has long demonstrated a commitment to progressive leadership on issues of diversity and inclusion, both on and off the field,” NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said in a statement. “The intent of the team’s name has always been to present a strong, positive and respectful image. The name is not used by the team or the NFL in any other context, though we respect those that view it differently.”
The Oneida Indian Nation, a tribe located in upstate New York, has been pushing for the name change through a national “Change the Mascot” campaign.
“Washington team owner Dan Snyder and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell have claimed that using the R-word epithet somehow honors native peoples, but it is quite the opposite,” said Oneida Nation CEO Ray Halbritter, in a statement. “The R-word is a dictionary-defined racial slur.”
The letter from members of the U.S. Senate came a year after President Barack Obama also weighed in on the controversy.
“If I were the owner of the team and I knew that the name of my team — even if they’ve had a storied history — was offending a sizable group of people, I’d think about changing it,” Obama told reporters last year.
With his ground-breaking comments, Obama made history once again: He is perhaps the first sitting president to say he would consider changing the Washington Redskins nickname – and his truth could not have come at a better time in the debate.
“All these mascots and team names related to Native Americans, Native Americans feel pretty strongly about it,” Obama said. “And I don’t know whether our attachment to a particular name should override the real, legitimate concerns that people have about these things.”
The Washington Redskins nickname is not only offensive – it’s racist. Native Americans have argued for years that the name offends them, but Snyder has long refused requests from Native Americans and others to change the name, which originated during the 1930s.
Jackie Pata, the executive director of the American Congress of American Indians, said the NFL is contributing to racism by allowing the Redskins to keep the nickname.
“The NFL is a global brand,” Pata said in a statement. “But it wants to contribute to the positive image of the United States across the world rather than callously promoting discrimination against Native Americans, then it must stop promoting this slur and finally change the name.”