By Susan Heavey and Steve Ginsburg
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Two U.S. lawmakers on Monday rejected the National Football League’s claim that the Washington Redskins name was an honor to Native Americans and urged the sports league to recognize it as a racial slur and back changing the name.
In a letter to the National Football League, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell, a Democrat from Washington state, and Republican U.S. Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma criticized the league for defending the name.
“The terminology used by the Washington football team has been determined to be a slur,” the lawmakers said.
“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,” they wrote in the letter, first reported by The New York Times.
A representative for the Redskins, in an email to Reuters, dismissed the lawmakers’ request. The NFL had no immediate reaction.
The letter follows recent comments by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell in support of the Redskins’ moniker, which team owner Dan Snyder has vowed not to change.
“Let me remind you this is the name of a football team, a football team that has had that name for 80 years and has presented the name in a way that has honored Native Americans,” Goodell said at a Jan. 31 news conference. He said the league respected those who disagreed but cited polling figures showing support for the Redskins name.
On Monday, the lawmakers shot back.
“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,” wrote Cantwell, who heads the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, and Cole, a member of the Chickasaw Nation and one of two Native American congressmen, according to his office.
Both Oklahoma and Washington state are home to dozens of federally recognized Native American tribes.
Redskins spokesman Tony Wyllie, in an email to Reuters, chided the lawmakers for focusing on the team’s name given other pressing national issues.
“With all the important issues Congress has to deal with such as a war in Afghanistan to deficits to health care, don’t they have more important issues to worry about than a football team’s name? And given the fact that the name of Oklahoma means ‘Red People’ in Choctaw, this request is a little ironic,” said Wyllie.
NFL spokesman Greg Aiello told Reuters that the league received the letter and would later respond “in an appropriate manner.”
(Additional reporting by Steve Ginsburg; Editing by Doina Chiacu, Dan Grebler and Bernard Orr)