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Does Congress have the leverage to force a name change for Washington’s football team?

Norton: ‘We’re going to take full advantage of this moment’

The name of the team has drawn ire for years. Now at least one member of Congress believes this could be the year for Washington’s football team.
The name of the team has drawn ire for years. Now at least one member of Congress believes this could be the year for Washington’s football team. (Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images file photo)

Washington’s football team is still named what it’s named, and some members of Congress are trying to change that … again.

In the wake of George Floyd’s killing and the racial justice movement it sparked, a reckoning has come. Institutions are publicly grappling with how to handle their portraits, flags and statues honoring men or causes no longer considered worth honoring. 

At first glance, that includes the Redskins, an NFL franchise that has vehemently opposed calls to change its name, an offensive slur against Native Americans.

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A monument came down last week that had memorialized franchise founder George Preston Marshall, a notorious racist who resisted integration until his team was the last holdout in the league.

But the team had nothing to do with its removal. Workers toppled the monument at the direction of Events DC, which now owns and operates RFK Stadium, where the team played for years. “This symbol of a person who didn’t believe all men and women were created equal and who actually worked against integration is counter to all that we as people, a city, and nation represent,” Events DC said in a statement.

Over the weekend, the team did move to address its past, saying it would retire the number 49 jersey to celebrate the late Bobby Mitchell, the first African American player to join the Redskins in 1962.

And owner Dan Snyder announced the team would further honor Mitchell by renaming the lower level of FedEx field, its current stadium in Landover, Maryland.

Those moves may appease some, but D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton is not one of them. 

“Snyder had to reach for that tokenism, and it’s hardly a grip,” she told CQ Roll Call this week on the “Political Theater” podcast. 

The way Norton sees it, now is the time for Congress to flex its muscles and force the change she and others have long wanted to see — a new name for the team itself. “We’re going to take full advantage of this moment, and not leave the name of the Washington football team out there, the way it is.” 

Snyder has indicated he wants to move back into the District when the team’s lease in Maryland is up in 2027, but that path runs through Congress, since RFK Stadium sits on land owned by the federal government. Norton has proposed legislation that would allow D.C. to buy the land and bring the team back to the city, but said her fellow lawmakers are turned off by the “Redskins” moniker.

“I have to tell you that I cannot get that bill through the House for one reason only, and that is because of the name of the team,” she said.

Marshall started the Boston Braves franchise in 1932 before settling on the current name and relocating to Washington. He had the marching band play “Dixie” during halftime. Once, when asked why he refused to desegregate, Marshall reportedly said he’d hire Black players when the Harlem Globetrotters hired white ones.

Snyder has been just as steadfast when it comes to the team name. “We will never change the name of the team,” Snyder told USA Today in 2013. “Redskins fans understand the great tradition and what it’s all about and what it means, so we feel pretty fortunate to be just working on next season.”

Norton disagrees. Whatever else it may be, the name is bad for business, she said. “The change in the name will probably bring him revenue rather than lose him revenue,” she said.

Others in Congress have tried and failed to use their leverage on the issue.

In 2014, Senate Democrats called on NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to send a message “that racism and bigotry have no place in professional sports,” in a letter sent to the league office. Separate letters from lawmakers, including Rep. Tom Cole (a member of the Chickasaw Nation), also asked for a name change.

Around the same time, Sen. Maria Cantwell, who was then chairwoman of the Indian Affairs Committee, introduced legislation to strip the NFL of its tax exempt status, saying Americans should not have to subsidize a league that profits from a “dictionary-defined racial slur.” Norton introduced a similar measure in the House. The NFL preempted that effort soon afterward by deciding to pay taxes.

Even so, Norton likes to believe this year could be the one. “[Snyder’s] stubbornness on this might have been abided before George Floyd, but with the kind of sweeping change we see in our country, the tokenism he’s just given us, by naming a portion of the stadium, is hardly going to do it,” she said.

Jason Dick contributed to this report.