By Ben Goad - 06/21/14 06:00 AM EDT
The National Football League is once again on a crash course with Congress.
The government’s bid to cancel the Washington Redskin’s trademark has rekindled long-smoldering debate over whether the team’s name is a racial slur, and is testing an increasingly strained relationship between the league and federal lawmakers.
The league and the Redskins themselves have bolstered their presence in Washington, adding lobbyists and pouring money into both sports safety programs and political coffers.
But decades have passed since Congress bestowed non-profit status and antitrust exemptions upon pro football. Once warm and welcoming, Capitol Hill might now feel to the NFL a little more like Lambeau Field on a frigid Sunday in November.
“I think that the NFL gets a lot of special privileges as a result of congressional enactments of the past,” Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) told The Hill. “I think we ought to ask them how they can countenance having one of their teams with a name that is openly racist.”
Calls to change the moniker of one of the NFL’s most storied franchises were getting louder, even before the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office cancelled the trademark on the Washington Redskins name last Wednesday on grounds that it is disparaging to Native Americans.
The dispute, which dates back two decades, returned to the fore following a racial flap in the National Basketball Association involving insensitive remarks made by Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver’s decisive move to ban Sterling for life was widely applauded and the NBA, which has struggled with public image problems, was suddenly the darling of the sports world for many.
Seeing parallels between the Sterling case and the Redskins debate, lawmakers began asking why the NFL — long considered the top dog among major sports — couldn’t be a little more like the NBA.
Late last month, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) spearheaded a letter urging NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to drop support for the Redskins name.
“It upsetting to us because we don’t understand why they can't just address this issue and move on,” said Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who signed the missive.
In the House, Waxman has requested that Goodell and Redskins owner Dan Snyder be called to testify on the issue at a congressional hearing. Waxman said it is time for his fellow lawmakers to take a more aggressive stance on the team’s name.
“It’s anachronistic, its unjustifiable and they ought to insist that the Washington team change its name,” he said.
The decision last week by the Patent and Trademark Office’s appeal board to strip the team of its trademark on the Washington Redskins name only amplified the criticism from Congress.
Reid, who’d previously sworn off Redskins games until they dropped the name, said the ruling is evidence that “justice will be done.”
“The writing is on the wall,” Reid said. “It’s on the wall in giant blinking neon lights.”
Neither the Redskins nor the NFL have budged.
The team immediately promised to appeal the three-member board’s 2-1 ruling.
Bob Raskopf, trademark attorney for the Redskins predicted the team would ultimately prevail. He pointed to an earlier case in which the board sought to cancel the team’s trademarks, only to be overturned by a federal court.
“We are confident that when a district court review’s today’s split decision, it will reach a similar conclusion,” he said.
The team has sought to go on offense, urging fans via Twitter to deluge Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) with messages telling him "what the team means to you."
Meanwhile, the NFL has remained supportive of the name.
"The intent of the team’s name has always been to present a strong, positive and respectful image,” league spokesman Brian McCarthy said in a statement responding to the Senate letter. “The name is not used by the team or the NFL in any other context, though we respect those that view it differently."
McCarthy and other league representatives could not be reached for comment late last week.
The dust-up comes amid mounting turmoil over player safety and concerns over long-term effects of concussions sustained on the field. Thousands of former NFL players have sued the league handling of concussions, which doctors say can be associated with permanent memory loss and behavioral changes.
President Obama, who has said the risk of concussions would make him reluctant to allow his own son, if he had one, to play professional football, convened a summit on the issue last month.
As part of the event, the NFL announced it would spend an additional $25 million over the next three years to support partnerships promoting youth sports safety. The league also pledged to put $16 million in initial funding into a National Institutes of Health study of concussions.
The issue has also been the subject of a congressional inquiry, as has the issue of drug testing players to detect the use of human growth hormones in the NFL.
The National Football League Players Association (NFLPA) agreed more than two years ago to help implement an HGH testing strategy within the league. But negotiations between the union group and the NFL about testing guidelines and safety mechanisms have failed to yield results, lawmakers have complained.
“Football has been dragging its feet with regard to human growth hormones,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), who has helped lead the congressional probe.
He likened the issue to Major League Baseball’s crackdown on steroid use, which came, at least in part, as a result of high-profile congressional hearings.
Members of Congress from both sides of the aisle are pressing the Federal Communications Commission to abandon decades old blackout regulations, which prohibit sporting events from being televised when the home teams don’t sell enough seats.
Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) urged the FCC earlier this year to move forward with plans to take the 1975 rule off the agency’s books before the 2014 season kicks off in September.
Even the league’s coveted tax-exempt status is up for debate. Various lawmakers, including Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) and Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) have backed bills that would strip the NFL of the status, granted to the league in the 1960s, along with exemptions from certain antitrust rules.
At the ready to deal with the assortment of issues facing the league is a formidable stable of lobbyists from prominent shops including Covington & Burling, Elmendorf | Ryan, the Glover Park Group and John Dudinsky & Associates, as well as the NFL’s in house lobbying team.
As of the end of April, the NFL had reported $260,000 in 2014 lobbying expenses, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Gridiron-PAC, an NFL political action committee, has also been active.
The committee contributed almost $480,000 (including a $5,000 donation to Reid) through the first quarter of this year, more than half of what it doled out to candidates and committees in the 2012 election cycle.
Meanwhile, the Redskins have also lobbied up, hiring the firm McGuireWoods to help work on issues related to “discussions of team origins, history and traditions,” as well as the Washington Redskins Charitable Foundation and youth sports, activities of Original Americans' Foundation, according to lobbying disclosure forms.
Representatives from McGuireWoods and the NFL’s lobbying firms either declined to comment or did not answer requests late last week.
They figure to be busy in the months to come, as lawmakers show no signs of backing away.
“When you think about the money that’s in these sports and the fact that our constituents are paying for these sports, I think we have a legitimate interest...,” Cummings said, citing the need to ensure fairness and player protections.