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As Congress sparred over budget blueprints and stopgap spending measures last week, 10 lawmakers introduced legislation that would address a very different issue — the name of the Washington Redskins football team. And the legislation has the potential to affect the debate on other pro sports teams across the country with names referencing American Indians.
Del. Eni F.H. Faleomavaega, a Democrat representing American Samoa, has put forth the Non-Disparagement of American Indians in Trademarks Registrations Act of 2013. It would ban current and future trademarks that use the term “redskins” to refer to American Indians. Stripping the trademark protection from the word would cost the National Football League’s Redskins considerable sums of money related to its marketing and, the thinking goes, compel a name change.
“I’ve long loved the Redskins, but I can’t say the same for their name,” Democratic D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the bill’s original co-sponsor, told CQ Roll Call. “It disparages a group of Americans who happen to be only 2 percent of the population. It really gives the impression of doing perhaps what could not be done if a larger and more prominent group of Americans felt similarly disparaged.”
The Washington Redskins are not the only national sports team to evoke American Indian imagery that many people find offensive; supporters of existing team names say they aren’t meant to insult and, if anything, are meant to evoke the bravery and dignity of Native Americans.
Not every member thinks it’s something Congress should be involved in.
Rep. Pat Tiberi, R-Ohio, whose state is home to the Cleveland Indians and their mascot, Chief Wahoo, was incredulous on learning that a bill had been introduced to ban the Redskins’ trademark — perhaps a harbinger of sentiments shared by other members of his party who control the House.
“I think we have, what is it? A $16 trillion debt? The unemployment rate, people out of work?” Tiberi said. “I’m not really worried about what the Washington Redskins’ name is or the Cleveland Indians’ name is, or any other sports team.”
Rep. Marcia L. Fudge, an Ohio Democrat whose district includes Cleveland, said she has always supported changing the name of her home team and endorses scrapping the Washington Redskins name. She said she doesn’t think the legislative route is an appropriate one, though.
“It’s the right thing to do, it’s the moral thing to do, and they need to do it,” Fudge said of changing the team names. “But I don’t believe you can legislate to a privately owned enterprise what their name should be.”
In a signal that not all Democrats might feel strongly enough to rally around legislation, Rep. Sanford D. Bishop Jr., D-Ga., said he wasn’t too worried about the message the Atlanta Braves’ name sends.
He also said he wasn’t convinced the term “braves” was truly pejorative. Though the team eschewed its Chief Noc-A-Homa mascot years ago, it still boasts a tomahawk image on much of its official merchandise.
Bill supporters and sponsors say “redskins” represents the worst of the host of derogatory epithets for American Indians.
“They are all offensive, but perhaps we start with the most egregious example first,” said Robert Holden, deputy director of the National Congress of American Indians, adding that legislation dealing with only one team’s trademark will “hopefully help owners, fans and even team members understand better what’s going on here.”
The bill has been introduced at a time when momentum is beginning to build around the campaign to compel the Redskins to shed the moniker: A panel on the federal Trademark Trial and Appeal Board is currently mulling over arguments that “redskin” should be considered a slur and therefore not qualified to receive trademark protection.
Faleomavaega’s legislation also follows a history over the past half-decade of gains at the state level to combat the names and logos of sports teams using American Indian imagery.
In 2012, the Washington state Board of Education banned schools from using Native American-themed mascots, nicknames and logos.
Two years earlier, Wisconsin passed legislation that allows residents to lodge formal complaints against schools in their districts with sports teams that have a “race-based nickname, logo, mascot, or team name.”
In 2005, the NCAA adopted an official policy that would prohibit teams under its organizational umbrella from “displaying hostile and abusive racial/ethnic/national origin mascots, nicknames or imagery” at official championship games.
On Capitol Hill, though, there is less of a precedent for legislative efforts to combat racially derived sports team names, which Holden said should be considered a civil rights issue worthy of congressional attention and action.
In 1993, as the Redskins prepared to move out of RFK Stadium into more modern accommodations, Faleomavaega and Colorado Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (then a Democrat, later a Republican) introduced companion bills that would have compelled the team to change its name in order to build a new home in the District of Columbia.
Any football stadium built in D.C., the bills stipulated, would be prohibited from using “any person or organization exploiting any racial or ethnic group or using nomenclature that includes a reference to real or alleged physical characters of Native Americans or other groups of human beings.”
Ultimately, the Redskins moved to FedEx Field in Landover, Md., but it likely didn’t have anything to do with the bills, which never received consideration in their respective chambers.
Faleomavaega wasn’t available to comment for this story, but Norton, Holden and others suggested that trying to forecast a legislative victory for the bill was somewhat beside the point.
“I think this bill is introduced as a real effort to use the offices of the Congress to bring up a matter of principle,” Norton said.