Zema “Chief Zee” Williams, a well-known fan and unoffical mascot of the Washington football team, attends a 2004 a pep rally on the West Front of the Capitol.
Capitol Hill efforts to force Washington’s National Football League franchise to change its name remain stalled, even as President Barack Obama welcomes tribal leaders to the White House this week to launch the administration’s Council on Native American Affairs.
Democrats representing large swaths of the team’s fan base are split on whether Congress should use its power to force the franchise to change its name, which supporters say is not intended to denigrate anyone. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., has been leading the charge against the moniker, which she deems a “disparaging” ethnic slur, even voicing her opposition on ESPN. She and Maryland Rep. Donna Edwards, whose district is home to the team’s FedEx Field, both support a bill aimed at changing the 81-year-old name.
Fellow Maryland Democratic Reps. John Delaney and Chris Van Hollen believe the best approach to the decadeslong controversy would be for the team to voluntarily change its name.
The president said during an Oct. 4 interview that if he were the owner of the team, he would consider changing the name to avoid offending Native Americans. House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., echoed Obama.
“I think it would be wise and appropriate for Dan Snyder to consider changing the name,” Hoyer said in a statement to CQ Roll Call. “I expect there will continue to be conversations that lead to resolution on this issue, and I would encourage those conversations to occur in a timely manner.”
Six months before the team kicked off in its home opener, Del. Eni F.H. Faleomavaega, a Democrat representing American Samoa, launched a legislative offensive. He introduced a bill to ban current and future trademarks that use the term “redskins” to refer to American Indians.
“The Native American community has never accepted the ‘r-word’ as anything more than a hurtful, disparaging label that is a reminder of the maltreatment they have endured,” Faleomavaega said in a March 21 House floor speech announcing support from a broad coalition including the National Congress of American Indians, which is hosting events related to this week’s White House meetings.
Supporters believe canceling trademark protection would cost the franchise — worth an estimated $1.7 billion, according to Forbes — significant sums of money related to its marketing.
Putting a financial stranglehold on the team is a non-starter for Delaney, who views the branding issue from his standpoint as former CEO of a large company.
“Congressional action is not the best avenue for addressing this issue,” he said in an email. “A large number of my constituents are truly passionate about the team and I hope that the organization will move towards a name that everyone can unite behind. I also think the NFL should support the team in what could be costly and extensive re-branding efforts as eliminating this issue benefits the whole of the NFL.”
Van Hollen approaches the issue as a fan of the team. He believes the team should follow the path of Washington’s professional basketball team, which switched its name from the Bullets to the Wizards in 1997, “but does not believe that Congressional action should be taken to force that change,” spokeswoman Bridgett Frey said in an email.
So far, 18 Democrats and one Republican, Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole, have signed on in support of the Non-Disparagement of Native American Persons or Peoples in Trademark Registration Act of 2013. The bill has been stalled in a House Judiciary subcommittee since then and has not been scheduled for a hearing, according to a committee aide.
House members who represent Northern Virginia constituencies ripe with fans of the team also weighed in on how it should respond to criticism from the Native American community.
Democratic Rep. James P. Moran said Wednesday afternoon that he finds the team’s name “troubling” and would be personally offended by it if he were an American Indian.
“As it builds momentum, I think it’s going to be more and more difficult to retain that name,” Moran said, but he added that he leaves the decision in Snyder’s hands.
Democratic Rep. Gerald E. Connolly cut the conversation short when asked about the Redskins. “It’s not a federal issue, and I’m pretty busy with health care,” he said.
Faleomavaega’s office hopes the issue might have some traction in the Senate, but staff on the chamber’s Indian Affairs Committee said there are no plans for a companion bill at the moment.
The region’s Senate delegation is opting to watch silently from the sidelines. The offices of Virginia Democrats Tim Kaine and Mark Warner did not respond to multiple requests for comment on where they stand on the issue of a name change. Maryland Democrats Barbara A. Mikulski and Benjamin L. Cardin also had no comment for the record. Both are from Baltimore, home to the Ravens franchise.
Though her Minnesota home turf is far from the DMV territory, Democratic Rep. Betty McCollum has become one of the most outspoken opponents of the name, reaching out to Native American groups in her district and in D.C.
As a leader of the Congressional Native American Caucus, which she co-chairs with Cole, she sent letters to Snyder, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, team sponsor FedEx and the 31 other NFL franchises urging a name change.
Goodell responded to Congress this summer, writing that “the name is a unifying force that stands for strength, courage, pride and respect.” He left the ball in the owners’ court.
Snyder had previously vowed that the team would “never” drop the name but has recently softened his tone.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., takes a selfie with his cut-out head during the Hoops for Youth 16th annual charity basketball game held at George Washington University's Smith Center, September 8, 2014. The members of Congress team beat the lobbyist team 46-40. Buy photo here.