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Dozens of senators call on NFL to change Redskins team name

Democratic senators this week led the largest congressional effort to urge the National Football League to change the team name of the Washington Redskins.
In this Oct. 21, 2012 file photo, Washington Redskins helmets are shown during the first half of an NFL football game in East Rutherford, N.J.
In this Oct. 21, 2012 file photo, Washington Redskins helmets are shown during the first half of an NFL football game in East Rutherford, N.J.

Nearly 50 Democratic U.S. senators, and not one Republican, called on the National Football League this week to change the team name of the Washington Redskins, in the largest congressional effort of the decades-long effort to replace the term the senators called a racial slur.

Five Democrats did not sign the letter: Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, both of Virginia, where the team's headquarters and training facility are located; as well as Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Mark Pryor of Arkansas.

"Kaine has been publicly supporting a name change for months, but he had concerns about the tone of the letter sent by Senate Democrats," one of his aides told msnbc.

Additionally, Warner "believes that it's not for Congress to dictate what the league does. He believes that over time, team names will change to reflect the times," Beth Adelson, a Warner aide, told msnbc.

Requests for comment from the other three legislators were not immediately returned to msnbc.

They urged NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to follow National Basketball Association Commissioner Adam Silver, who recently fired Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling after a recording surfaced of the 80-year-old making racist comments.

"We urge you and the National Football League to send the same clear message as the NBA did: that racism and bigotry have no place in professional sports. It's time for the NFL to endorse a name change for the Washington, D.C., football team," the 49 legislators wrote Wednesday in their letter.

President Barack Obama and other elected officials, as well as civil rights organizations, sports leaders and members of the general American public, have expressed their concerns about the meaning of the term "redskin," saying it possesses negative racial connotations. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office refused to register the team's trademark and has determined the word is a "derogatory slang" term. 

Earlier this week, the New York State Assembly passed a unanimous bipartisan resolution denouncing the use of racial slurs as professional sports team names. The state is home to NFL headquarters.

The Democrats questioned Goodell about what message his failure to act sends. The NBA punished Sterling for his comments against African-Americans, but the NFL allows a team to endorse negative language toward Native Americans, they wrote.

"The despicable comments made by Mr. Sterling have opened up a national conversation about race relations. We believe this conversation is an opportunity for the NFL to take action to remove the racial slur from the name of one of its marquee franchises," they said in the letter.

Among the signees were Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Sens. Chuck Schumer of New York, Barbara Boxer of California, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Cory Booker of New Jersey.

Reid separately urged Redskins owner Dan Snyder to learn from Sterling's firing. Speaking on the Senate floor at the end of April, Reid noted the change 17 years ago of the Washington Bullets to what is now the Wizards, a motion made to disassociate the franchise from guns and violence in the District of Columbia. Kaine also noted the same modification last October during an interview with a radio station in Charlottesville , Va. 

"They called themselves 'faster than a speeding bullet.'  But Abe Pollin was an enlightened owner who decided that a name that was okay in the past, now was not okay. And I'm not the owner, but if I were the owner, I think I'd make the decision to find a better name," Kaine said, according to his aide.

A group of nine Democratic House lawmakers and one Republican last May renewed a decades-old debate about the controversial name when they sent a letter to Snyder and Goodell. Several other legislators have since crafted similar letters to the two leaders.

Oneida Nation, a federally recognized tribe, aired their "Change the Mascot" campaign nationwide through radio advertisements during the most recent NFL season. This week they praised the senators' effort.

"The R-word is a dictionary defined racial slur, which likely explains why avowed segregationist George Preston Marshall decided to use the term as the team's name. Continuing an infamous segregationist's legacy by promoting such a slur is not an honor, as Mr. Snyder and Mr. Goodell claim. It is a malicious insult," Ray Halbritter, representative of the Oneida Nation, said in a statement Thursday.

Snyder created a foundation to provide resources and opportunities for Native Americans and to preserve the heritage of his team's name in what he called his attempt "to do more" for the group of individuals.