(CNN) – Invoking the heated racial controversy triggered by basketball’s Donald Sterling, the U.S. Senate has stepped up pressure on the NFL to force the Washington Redskins to change their name.
Fifty senators, all Democrats, have signed a letter released on Thursday by Majority Leader Harry Reid that urges pro football’s commissioner, Roger Goodell, to take action over concerns that continued use of the Redskins brand is offensive to Native Americans.
They want Goodell to follow the lead of NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, who this month took tough measures against Sterling after the longtime owner of the league’s Los Angeles Clippers was recorded making comments offensive to African Americans.
“Today, 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,” the letter said.
“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,” the letter said.
The letter was signed by all but five of the chamber’s Democrats. Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, both of Virginia, where the team trains and maintains its corporate offices, did not sign the letter. Its home stadium is in Maryland.
Reid has previously said the NFL should demand Redskins owner Daniel Snyder "remove this degrading term from the league."
Snyder opposes a name change, vowing to keep it against both public and congressional pushback.
He contends the name, which the team’s had for 80 years, is part of a tradition important to fans.
Responding Friday to the senators' letter, Redskins President Bruce Allen invited Reid to a game to "witness first-hand that the Washington Redskins are a positive, unifying force for our community in a city and region that is divided on so many levels."
Responding to the Senate letter, the NFL said it has “long demonstrated a commitment to progressive leadership” on diversity.
“The intent of the team’s name has always been to present a strong, positive and respectful image. The name is not used by the team or the NFL in any other context, though we respect those that view it differently,” the league statement said.
CNN's Ted Barrett contributed to this report.