Change the Washington Redskins name? Make it about money.

In the most recent push in a battle over the name of the Washington Redskins professional football team, two members of Congress are threatening the NFL's status as a tax-exempt organization. Could money be the key to changing the Washington Redskins name?

Nick Wass/AP/File
The Washington Redskins logo on the field before the start of a preseason NFL football game in Landover, Md. In the latest battle over the Washington Redskins name, two members of Congress are threatening an examination of the league's nonprofit status.

As much as Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell would like it to, the push to get rid of the pro football’s most controversial mascot isn’t going away quietly. Now, lawmakers and advocates to change the Redskins name are trying a different tactic, and one that could actually get the league’s attention: They’re making it about money.

Two members of Congress sent a strongly worded letter to Mr. Goodell Monday, urging the NFL to take an official stance against the Redskins 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," read the letter, penned by Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), and Rep. Tom Cole, who is also a member of the Chickasaw Nation. “Virtually every major civil rights organization in America has spoken out in opposition to this name.”

The letter said the NFL was on “the wrong side of history,” and threatened to examine the NFL’s status as a tax-exempt organization if changes weren’t made.

Confused? Well, 1) good! You’re paying attention, and 2) yes, the NFL generates about $10 billion in annual revenue but also qualifies as a nonprofit. “It’s because they describe themselves as an organization to promote the general interest of the sport,” says Victor Matheson, a sports economist and professor at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. “Their central office doesn’t pay taxes, but money they generate goes to member clubs, which do pay taxes. It’s a minor benefit. That being said, it’s a silly one. Most tax-exempt organizations don’t have CEOs with multimillion dollar contracts.’

Other professional leagues, including the NHL and the PGA, enjoy tax-exempt status for the same reason.

The “nonprofit” issue has stirred up its own firestorm for the NFL over the past year or so. In June, the Senate even introduced and amendment to the Marketplace Fairness Act that would end the tax exemption (to clarify, the league’s designation is as a trade or industry organization, which is different from that of a charity).

Conflating that with the Redskins issue could serve to further stoke public outrage against the league, but the two aren’t necessarily intertwined beyond that. “You can use an offensive name all you want and still be a tax-exempt organization,” Mr. Matheson says. “It’s all up to the legislators who set tax policy”

What could be a problem though, and a much stronger monetary incentive for the NFL to make a change, is the ongoing battle over trademarking the term “Redskins.” Under federal law, the US government can refuse to trademark a term that is considered offensive or disparaging to a large portion of a particular group. In fact, the US Patent and Trademark office has declined several trademarks containing the word “Redskins” in recent years.

But the team’s use of the nickname was trademarked back in 1960, and attempts from advocacy groups to get it revoked have been mired in appeals. If the trademark is eventually cancelled, however, Matheson thinks a name change would follow “overnight. They lose the right to sue for trademark infringement, and that is gigantic. Anyone could then make and sell a Redskins jersey.”

That decision, too, could be affected by legislation – All you’d have to say is that US Congress’s stance is that the Redskins name is inherently offensive.”

Meanwhile, the Redskins’ organization still seems to see the swelling tide against the nickname as little more than a small puddle. Cantwell and Cole’s letter so far has done little to sway the team’s steadfast stance against a name change.

“Senator Cantwell should be aware that there are many challenges facing Native Americans, including an extremely cold winter with high energy bills, high unemployment, life threatening health problems, inadequate education and many other issues more pressing than the name of a football team which has received strong support from Native Americans,” read a statement issued by the franchise Monday. “Surely, with all the issues Congress is supposed to work on such as the economy, jobs, war and health care, the Senator must have more important things to do."

Roger Goodell and the league office have yet to issue a response to the letter. But the NFL didn’t become the top pro sports league in the country by passing up opportunities to make an extra buck. “Honestly, [a name change] is a way to sell a lot of new stuff to their fans,” Matheson says. “They’ll never say that, but it’s true.”

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