Washington Redskins fans have plenty of misery to deal with between megalomaniacal team owner Dan Snyder and the perennially losing teams he puts on the field. Now they may have to deal with Congress, too. Democratic Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington and Republican Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma sent a letter (PDF) to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell on Monday demanding that he formally endorse efforts to get the team to change its name. “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,” the letter said.
The Redskins were already the target of a growing pressure campaign to change the name. But the Goodell letter is a notable escalation for a couple of reasons. If it succeeds in getting the commissioner to condemn the name Redskins, then Snyder’s refusal to change the team’s name (and the public relations campaign he’s funding to push back against his critics) will probably become untenable. The campaign very well could succeed: Senior members of Congress have it in their power to put a lot of pressure on Goodell and NFL team owners, if they choose to do so.
That’s because the NFL enjoys tax-exempt status as the result of a sweetheart deal between league officials and Congress that enabled the AFL-NFL to merge in 1966. Section 501(c)(6) of the Internal Revenue Code was changed in order to exempt from taxation “business leagues, chambers of commerce, real estate boards, boards of trade, or professional football leagues (whether or not administering a pension fund for football players), not organized for profit.”
The NFL’s tax-exempt status has already caught the eye of Republican Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, an ardent deficit hawk who doesn’t see why taxpayers should be subsidizing a $10 billion-a-year professional sports league and has proposed an amendment to end it. This is precisely the threat Cantwell and Cole pose in their letter: “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 isn’t clear how hard Cantwell and Cole are willing to press the NFL or whether they can attract enough colleagues to strip the league’s tax-exempt status. My sense from watching Cantwell on MSNBC today is that she’s mainly interested in carrying water for Indian groups upset at the Redskins and the NFL; she chairs the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. “We certainly are going to look at the tax code,” Cantwell said when asked if she’d go after the league’s tax exemption. That’s hardly a clear threat, and the Indian Affairs Committee doesn’t have jurisdiction over the tax code.
But organizing a coalition to strip the league’s tax-exempt status may not be necessary. The NFL is reeling from the negative publicity of the concussion crisis it ignored for years and the domestic violence that seems endemic among its players. With University of Missouri defensive end Michael Sam’s announcement this weekend that he is gay, the league soon could be facing a new public relations crisis—if the disparaging comments and hints of discrimination from anonymous NFL general managers in this Sports Illustrated article are an indication of the league’s response to Sam’s arrival.
Goodell might decide he has bigger problems on his hands than defending the Redskins—and that, in the broader scheme of things, throwing Congress a bone might not be such a bad idea.