The pressure to change the name of Dan Snyder's football team grows -- and not just domestically.
Two members of British Parliament wrote a strongly worded letter to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell earlier this month, urging the league to change Washington's name or, "at the minimum, send a different team to our country to represent the sport, one that does not promote a racial slur."
Ruth Smeeth and Ian Austin, members of the British Labour Party, co-authored the letter dated Feb. 2, eight months before Washington is scheduled to play the Cincinnati Bengals as part of the NFL's international series.
"The exportation of this racial slur to the UK this autumn, when the Washington team is due to play, directly contravenes the values that many in Britain have worked so hard to instill."From letter by Ruth Smeeth and Ian Austin to Roger Goodell
"We were shocked to learn the derivation of the term 'R*dskin,' pertaining as it does to the historic abuse of native Americans," read the letter, a copy of which was obtained by ESPN. "The exportation of this racial slur to the UK this autumn, when the Washington team is due to play, directly contravenes the values that many in Britain have worked so hard to instill."
A league spokesman confirmed the NFL received the letter.
"A team's name is a club decision," Brian McCarthy, the NFL's vice president of communications, replied in an email. "We recognize there are strong views on both sides of this."
The NFL has scheduled 17 games in London since 2007 -- including three per season starting in 2014. Asked at the Super Bowl earlier this month about the possibility of eventually awarding London an NFL franchise, Goodell sounded more confident than ever:
"I believe in the future we will see more games in the UK," the commissioner said. "As for a franchise, let's continue to grow, let's continue to see that excitement, enthusiasm, passion and support continue to develop. If it does, I think it is a realistic possibility."
But Washington's name remains vexing for the image-conscious NFL. After echoing support for Snyder two years ago, Goodell and the league have privately distanced themselves from Snyder's forceful defense of its brand, which includes charitable efforts many Native American groups have deemed as hush money geared toward tribes who have not openly come out against the name.
"We're quite clear that sport is a vehicle for cultural change and celebration of what's best about society rather than hate and division," Smeeth said in a telephone interview from London last Friday. "That's why bringing in new racial slurs to Britain is unacceptable. This is not the way we would want Native Americans introduced to our country."
Smeeth and Austin were among several members of Parliament who met at the House of Commons in late January with members of the Change the Mascot campaign. They included Ray Halbritter, the leader of the Oneida Nation in upstate New York who, along with the National Congress of American Indians, launched ChangeTheMascot.org in 2013.
But while tens of thousands of Native Americans and their allies play the waiting game in the U.S., they have several factors working in their favor in the U.K.
No nation has stricter anti-racism laws in sports, due in part to disturbing incidents encountered by black soccer players over the years, including having banana peels and monkey chants hurled at them during matches. Clubs at every level can be heavily fined or banished from their respective leagues for any violation.
In their letter, Smeeth and Austin also mention the site of the October game, Wembley Stadium, having its own anti-racism charter, including the banishment of "racial, homophobic or discriminatory abuse, chanting or harassment," in accordance with the Football (Offences) Act of 1991. Wembley also hosted the launch of one of the two major international campaigns launched against racism in sports, including Kick It Out, a partnership with FIFA.
A Wembley spokesperson confirmed Tuesday the issue over Washington's name is now being discussed internally.
Another hurdle the NFL has to clear is the British Broadcasting Corporation, the publicly owned network that broadcasts the game in the United Kingdom.
"Given it's taxpayer-funded, if we believe it's a racial slur, then that means problems for the BBC in terms of coverage of the event," Smeeth said. "There is going to come a pressure point. The last thing the NFL wants -- after putting so much behind its brand in the UK -- is a good number of us to begin putting pressure on the BBC in terms of what they're showing and how they're showing it. This is not the image the NFL wants portrayed in the UK. "
A BBC spokesperson, via email, reiterated the network's long-held stance, "is to refer to a sports team by their officially-sanctioned name." Mindful of the growing controversy, though, the network also left itself wiggle room: "Editorial planning for the game in October has not started."
Meantime, British journalists have already campaigned against Washington coming to the U.K. to play.
"A team's name is a club decision. We recognize there are strong views on both sides of this."NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy
A U.S. Patent & Trademark trial and appeal board stripped Washington of its federal trademark registrations in 2014, citing large numbers of Native Americans disparaged by the team's name. Last July, a federal judge upheld the earlier court's ruling, which is still being appealed by the team.
The latest in the case involved an amicus curiae brief being filed by the Navajo Nation two weeks ago in support of the defendants, including lead plaintiff Amanda Blackhorse, a member of the Navajo Nation. The brief contradicts the league and team's contention that the Navajo support the name, loosely based on Snyder brazenly having four World War II code talkers walk onto the FedEx Field in 2014 during a commercial break on ESPN's Monday Night Football and sharing his owner's box with the the former Navajo Nation president at an Arizona Cardinals game in 2014.
"In fact, the Nation's view is quite the opposite," the brief reads. "Peter McDonald is a named amicus supporting Pro-Football, Inc., but he is but one among over 300,000 enrolled Navajo citizens. He speaks on his own behalf, and his view is not reflective of the Nation or of its citizens in general. The Nation's elected and appointed and traditional leaders speak for the Navajo people, and their strong, unified opposition to the team name due to its disparaging nature and the harm it threatens to the health and well-being of the Nation's individual tribal members, is the true reflection of the Navajo Nation's view with respect to the team name."
More than 30 national Native American organizations across the county have spoken out against Washington's name, including the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), the oldest, largest and most representative American Indian and Alaska Native organization, representing about 70 percent of Native Americans (nearly 800,000 people) living on reservations. In addition, United South and Eastern Tribes Inc. (USET), an inter-tribal organization with 26 federally-recognized Tribal Nations representing over 65,000 Native Americans, and over 40 Individual Tribal Governments and leaders have passed resolutions or issued statements condemning "Redskins" as a racial slur.
Mentioning the United Nations' proclamation against the name and a growing number of dissenters in the U.S. they contend has reached a "critical mass," Smeeth and Austin conclude in their letter to Goodell. "Sport has the rare ability to act as a unifying force in the world, yet the use of the Washington team name is inherently divisive. It is both puzzling and alarming the NFL is choosing to export this controversy to Britain."