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Two Congressional Leaders Challenge NFL Tax-exempt Status in Name-change Debate

Congressional Leaders Challenge NFL Tax-exempt Status in Name-change Debate
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Two members of Congress wrote a personal letter to NFL Commisioner Roger Goodell this morning saying that the NFL is on “the wrong side of history.” Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK) and Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) urged Goodell to change the Washington NFL’s team’s name and objected to his pre-Super Bowl press conference in which he defended the team name as an "honor” to Native Americans.

“It is, in fact, an insult to Native Americans,” Cantwell and Cole wrote in the letter responding to Goodell’s charge. “We are calling on you and the National Football League to take a formal position in support of a name change.”

On the Friday before the Super Bowl, Goodell was asked by a reporter during a press conference if the R-word was appropriate to refer to a Native American. Goodell swept it under the rug, saying, ''This is the name of a football team.''

RELATED Goodell Defends R-Word in Pre-Super Bowl Press Conference

But Cantwell, who has served on the Senate Indian Affairs Committee since 2001, and Cole who is an enrolled member of the Chickasaw Nation and one of the only Native Americans currently serving in the House of Representatives, are not letting Goodell off the hook.

Maria Cantwell (D-WA) Associated Press

In the letter, Cole and Cantwell threatened the NFL’s tax-exempt status, a step which, according to John Banzhaf, a law professor at George Washington University provides even more “ammunition” to the growing name-change movement.

“What other ‘nonprofit’ could afford to pay a commissioner like a Roger Goodell a whopping $29.5 million dollars-a-year, 15 times more, by the way, than the ‘nonprofit’ tax-exempt league gives to charity?’ Banzhaf said in a news release. “How about a league that generates $10 billion annually in profits at the same time it receives one-billion annually in government assistance. Not too shabby by the way for a ‘nonprofit.’”

Banzhaf, who is helping to prepare the appropriate legal challenges against the league said that to revoke its “privileged status” forces the NFL to pay the same taxes that many other large organizations now pay. Cole and Cantwell agreed, saying that it was “not appropriate” for a multibillion dollar 501(c)(6)tax-exempt organization to profit from the degradation of Native people.

The issue of revoking the NFL's tax-exempt status has been in the news recently. Bloomberg reported that almost three-fourths of Americans surveyed want the NFL's tax-exempt status revoked.

Tom Cole (R-OK) Associated Press

“[It’s] a figure which is likely to grow even higher as more and more taxpayers become aware that Congress has awarded the league tax-exempt status,” Banzhaf wrote in a news release. “Equally serious is a challenge the ‘Redskins’ team and the NFL may soon face if the FCC, as expected, takes action on requests by a former FCC Chairman, several former FCC commissioners, and a wide variety of public interest broadcast law experts.”

RELATED Former FCC Chairman to Dan Snyder: Change Your Team's Name

In his response to Cole and Cantwell’s letter to Goodell, Ray Halbritter, CEO and Representative of the Oneida Indian Nation, praised their “immediate action to prevent the league from using any more public resources to promote hatred against Native Americans."

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"While the Washington team somehow claims that Congress has better things to do than intervene in a serious issue that involves taxpayer dollars, it is the exact opposite: Congress has a responsibility to the American people to put an end to this kind of taxpayer-subsidized bigotry,” Halbritter wrote in a press release. “We are thrilled to have these congressional leaders from both parties speaking out on behalf of the ‘Change the Mascot’ campaign.”

The full text of Senator Cantwell and Representative Cole’s letter follows:

Dear Commissioner Goodell:

February 10, 2014

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 National Football League 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.

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 policy makers.

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 National Football League 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.


Maria Cantwell

Tom Cole