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Washington • Half the U.S. Senate urged NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell on Thursday to change the Washington NFL team's name a nickname for native Americans considered offensive saying it is a racist slur and the time is ripe to replace it.
In one letter, 49 senators cited the NBA's quick action recently to ban Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling for life after he was heard on an audio recording making offensive comments about blacks. They said Goodell should formally push to rename the team.
"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," read the letter.
Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, wrote his own letter saying he doesn't believe that retaining the Washington team name "is appropriate in this day and age." He described himself as "one of your great fans for both the game and you personally."
The letters come at a time of growing pressure to change the team name, with statements in recent months from President Barack Obama, lawmakers of both parties and civil rights groups.
Team owner Daniel Snyder has refused to change the name, citing tradition. The franchise has been known by its current name since 1933, when it played in Boston.
Last month, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., took to the Senate floor to say Snyder should "do what is morally right" and change the name. Thursday's letters were aimed directly at Goodell.
In a written response, NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said "diversity and inclusion" have long been a focus of the NFL.
"The intent of the team's name has always been to present a strong, positive and respectful image," McCarthy said. "The name is not used by the team or the NFL in any other context, though we respect those that view it differently."
Reid and Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., led the letter-writing effort. All senators on the letter are Democrats. Cantwell spokesman Jared Leopold said Republicans were not asked to participate.
Cantwell later said on the Senate floor that she was inviting Republicans to sign the letter or write their own.
"I'm convinced that if each member of this body speaks on this issue and is forceful in their resolve, that we can help initiate change," she said.
Democrats not signing the letter were Tim Kaine and Mark Warner of nearby Virginia, where the team's headquarters are; Mark Pryor of Arkansas, in a tight re-election race this year; and Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Joe Donnelly of Indiana, two of their party's more moderate lawmakers.
The senators noted that tribal organizations representing more than 2 million Native Americans across the U.S. have said they want the name dropped.
Despite federal laws protecting their identity, "Every Sunday during football season, the Washington, D.C., football team mocks their culture," they wrote.
"The NFL can no longer ignore this and perpetuate the use of this name as anything but what it is: a racial slur," the letter said.