Congress Joins Redskins Name Debate


May 23, 2013; Ashburn, VA, USA; A flag flies at half-staff to honor tornado victims in Oklahoma outside Redskins Park during organized team activities. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The controversy around the Washington Redskins name continues to linger in the national discourse, as ten members of the United States Congress have re-joined the discussion. On Tuesday, representatives announced that formal letters were sent to commissioner Roger Goodell, owner Daniel Snyder, and the owners of the other 31 NFL teams urging for a name change in Washington. Among the Congressional authors were Native American Caucus chairs Tom Cole (R) and Betty McCollum (D). According to the authors, “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 letter to the commissioner can be read in full here (from the National Journal).

For those just joining the Riggo’s Rag community, you can put me squarely in the pro-name change camp for reasons I have previously outlined. With that in mind, here are my thoughts on the news from Congress:

1) I am glad the Congressional group took the time to write these letters. I think it is an important issue that should actually be debated and discussed. Granted, it is very difficult to have an honest discourse about the name when the owner is emphatic about never changing it. Still, I think it is a discussion worth having. And when I say discussion, I mean a genuine back and forth between interested parties: Native American groups from around the country, Redskins personnel, NFL officials, and yes, Daniel Snyder. I don’t feel like this has actually happened. The people in power have been very happy to sweep this under the rug because it is financially convenient to do so.

2) There will be plenty of sports journalists and pundits who will point to this and say, “This isn’t going to change anything.” And in one sense, they are right. Dan Snyder is under no obligation to change the name because ten members of Congress want him too. However, change rarely comes from a single letter. Change occurs gradually over time, as political, economic, and social norms evolve. Even with 79 percent of the country favoring the current team name, that number is down ten percent from 1992. As political elites, members of Congress have the ability to shape national discourse in a way most of us cannot. So pointing out that a strongly-worded letter was not effective in achieving an ultimate goal is a weak argument.

3) There will be others who complain that these members of Congress have inserted themselves into someone else’s business. With all the pressing issues facing the country, the argument goes, don’t they have better things to do? Indeed, if Congress was only writing letters to NFL sports owners, I would probably agree. However, Congressional members have staffs of people working on all kinds of issues. Bills are introduced, interviews given, hearings attended everyday on issues that most Americans would more poignant- creating jobs, national security, promoting economic growth, education, etc. When a political figure talks sports, it does not mean he is ignoring his other responsibilities. We all do it at our offices on a daily basis.

In this case, however, Congress isn’t just talking about sports. It is trying to address multiple issues that are very much in the realm of what Congress should be working on. There are issues of racism. There are issues of trademark protection and exclusivity rights for a business that is worth over a billion dollars. These are issues we want out representatives working on, even in the realm of sports.

4) As nice as letters can be, I believe the most likely source of change in the Redskins name will come from the Federal Trademark Trial and Appeal Board. If the Daniel Snyder loses exclusivity rights and trademark protection in the current lawsuit he is facing, he will seriously consider having to change the name. I know he said we could put it in “caps”, but that ruling could cost him millions of dollars. Grandstanding has a fixed price.

For an issue that has been laid to rest many times, it keeps refusing to die. I think there is a legitimate reason for that, and I certainly don’t mind Congress bringing it back to the forefront of our national attention. Certainly beats watching the NBA playoffs.