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Congress Playing Tough With the NFL (Video)

A Redskins cheerleader entertained Capitol Police during a 2009 roll call. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)
A Redskins cheerleader entertained Capitol Police during a 2009 roll call. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

In 2009, Capitol Hill welcomed the Washington Redskins Marching Band and two cheerleaders for a pep rally on the West Front. It was a festive preparation for a Monday night NFL game against the Dallas Cowboys.  

Five years later, with growing opposition to the Washington team’s name, plus controversy surrounding the $10 billion league, Congress is attacking the NFL on all fronts. Members of both chambers have written Roger Goodell, the league’s commissioner, to complain about his handling of a domestic violence incident involving former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, calling for more transparency from the league.  

Now, Senate Democrats are following through on a threat  to use the NFL’s nonprofit status to pressure team owner Dan Snyder into changing the franchise’s name, putting the company’s tax exemption in peril.  

Before skipping town to focus on fall elections, Sen. Maria Cantwell introduced a bill that would end tax-breaks for the NFL if the league continues to promote the name the Washington football team has used since 1933. The Washington Democrat said American taxpayers “should not be forced to subsidize a $9 billion league that promotes a dictionary-defined racial slur.”  

The proposal from Cantwell, a member of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, has the backing of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. In May, the pair led half the Senate  in a letter to  NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, asking him to formally endorse removing the name.  

“This is personal for me,” said the Nevada Democrat, who represents 27 tribes, in a joint statement on the bill. “As the past few weeks have illustrated, the problems within the NFL are far and wide. Today we are taking action and I gladly stand with Sen. Cantwell in calling for the end of NFL’s not-for-profit status.”  

Unlike a proposal from Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., that would permanently end the nonprofit status of the NFL, as well as the National Hockey League, the Professional Golfers’ Association and other sports leagues with annual revenues over $10 million, the Democrats’ bill would only temporarily target the football league.  

Supporters of Coburn’s proposal say it would help level the playing field in the profitable sports industry. Neither Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association nor Major League Soccer enjoy tax-exempt status. Organizations can register for the 501(c)(6) status if they are industry or trade associations promoting the benefit of one or more lines of business. The NFL and other leagues qualify by stating their purpose is to promote their respective sport at large, versus promoting the brand.  

The Democrat’s aim — ending use of the so-call “r-word” — has plenty of support. The D.C. Council, American Civil Liberties Union and NAACP formally oppose the name. The National Congress of American Indians, the largest organization representing Native Americans, and dozens of other tribal organizations have passed resolutions supporting the name change.  

With a nine treaty tribes back home in South Dakota, Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson also backs the bill.  

“Our tax code should not be doling out tax breaks to organizations that perpetuate the use of racist slurs,” Johnson said in the statement. “Native Americans have long endured historical traumas, and the name of the Washington football team harkens back to a dark time in our nation’s history. I am proud to join this legislative effort to stop subsidizing a league that is profiting from a degrading, hurtful, and racist term.”  

Snyder has repeatedly vowed never to change the name. He’s found support from leaders in Virginia’s Loudon County, where the team’s headquarters and practice facility are located. The local board of supervisors voted unanimously last year to defend the Redskins’ right to choose its own name, saying the issue is a business decision.  

Cantwell’s bill arrived one week after 16 women senators announced they would send a letter to Goodell asking the NFL to adopt a “real zero-tolerance policy for domestic violence” following the recent release of a video showing Rice hitting his then-fiance. They said they are concerned that under current NFL policy such behavior is only subject to a “short suspension.”  

Similarly, 12 Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee turned up the heat on Goodell, asking for more specifics on the response from NFL employees and law enforcement to the video. Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., also contacted Goodell after viewing the footage, and asked him to respond to specific questions. Other senators have publicly criticized his handling this week, raising suspicion that Congress could eventually step in to police the league.  

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