The head of the National Basketball Association is being praised for swiftly acting to ban an NBA team owner for life, after his private conversations were leaked in which he displayed unquestionable racism. That is indeed laudable, but it ignores the institutional racism which is still allowed within the National Football League and Major League Baseball. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid just pointed this out (with regards to the NFL), on the floor of the Senate. But even Reid didn't go far enough. Consider the following outlandish scenario, if you will: the Clippers are forced to be sold to another owner. This new owner decides that the team name has been tainted beyond all repair, and decides to rename the team. He chooses the name "Blackskins," and comes up with a logo that closely resembles the Little Black Sambo caricature. What would the public say? Think everyone would agree that this was a good idea?
Personally, I think even suggesting such an outrageous thing would raise an enormous outcry. The question would loudly be asked: "Why replace a racist owner with a racist team name and logo?" After all, could anyone possibly defend the name "Blackskins" or a grinning cartoon of an African-American, in this day and age? Would anyone buy the excuse "we're celebrating history and heritage" as a valid explanation for such a team name or logo?
Perhaps certain racial minority groups are worthy of respect, and others aren't. That is the only real explanation of why the above scenario is so far-fetched as to appear ridiculous on first glance -- but why we still have a professional football team named the "Redskins" and a logo for a professional baseball team which is obviously comparable to a Little Black Sambo cartoon. How can anyone -- Cleveland fan or not -- still defend the mascot "Chief Wahoo"?
The Cleveland Indians seem to be slowly getting rid of this blatantly racist image, and replacing it with a block letter "C." But the image still appears on the Indian's official homepage, and still appears on team uniforms and team merchandise sold to the public. Why is this not considered universally unacceptable, when a basketball team owner just got a lifetime ban for something he said in private to his girlfriend?
The Washington Redskins and Chief Wahoo are not something said in private. They are as public as it gets. Millions of dollars are made each year by the sale of merchandise with these names and logos prominently appearing. Yet the leagues do nothing.
It's not like they are unaware that people are offended, either. The Redskins are in a legal battle against a group which is trying to get their trademark revoked (for being patently offensive), and members of Congress have weighed in on the controversy by asking the team owner to change the name. The Redskins are well aware of the problem. The team owner refuses to budge. The league remains mostly silent. Silence, in this instance, equals consent. Why is blatant racism unacceptable when directed against African Americans but acceptable when directed against Native Americans? You'll have to ask the leaders of the NFL and MLB, because I have no answer to that question.
There are other team names and logos which use Native American names and images (the Chiefs and the Braves, to name two). However, the Redskins and Chief Wahoo are the worst examples. The Braves retired their mascot ("Chief Noc-A-Homa"... get it?), but still do an awfully offensive "tomahawk chop" chant at their home games.
I have previously proposed a solution to the problem of Native American names and imagery in professional sports: create a corporation made up exclusively of Native Americans, and force the teams to pay licensing fees for their use of such names and imagery. The key point would be that the Native Americans would decide the yearly fees. The more offensive the language or imagery used, the higher the price. Daniel Snyder, the owner of the Redskins, actually proposed something similar in response to the controversy, but his proposal is insufficient in two major ways. Snyder named his effort the "Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation," to start with (he just had to include the insult right there in the name of the organization, didn't he?). Also, the team (not Native Americans) would determine how much it paid to the fund.
Neither the MLB nor the NFL organizations has forced any such move, and continue their silence. One group, however, is introducing a new dimension to the fight against racist team names and logos, by targeting the maker of the Chief Wahoo merchandise directly:
The group, called Eradicating Offensive Native Mascotry, is planning a protest at Nike's Oregon headquarters in Beaverton this week and is running a social media campaign using the #Dechief hashtag.
"The fact that Nike is selling items that feed into the hostility toward Native Americans is really troubling," said the group's co-founder, Jacqueline Keeler. "Major businesses profit off of caricatures of our people. It would not be acceptable for any other group to be portrayed like this."
She is right. We'll see what Nike's response to such protests is. Their brand name is supposed to represent all that is good about sports in this country, so profiting off racism doesn't exactly match their intended corporate image. The Eradicating Offensive Native Mascotry group has set up a Facebook page, if you'd like to show your support.
Professional sports leagues ignore racism because they think they can get away with it. The only thing that will ever change their minds is if their bottom line is put at risk. When an NBA owner was caught saying racist things, the league moved swiftly and decisively by booting him out. That is to their credit. But it only happened after the story became a media frenzy over the weekend. Pretty much everyone in the world of sports condemned the remarks and the response was unequivocal from the league. Also, the players' association was threatening to refuse to play Clippers games -- which would have been an enormous public relations fiasco for the whole league.
Pushback against the Redskins name and Chief Wahoo is growing, but has so far received nowhere near the media attention the Clippers owner just got. But just imagine if Nike announced it would no longer make clothes with Chief Wahoo's image on it. Imagine if that were followed by ESPN and all the broadcast networks announcing a full ban on showing and reporting on Redskins or Indians games. That's what it might take to force the NFL and MBA to act. Until we reach that point, however, all we have is the deafening silence from them -- which, in fact, speaks volumes.
[Program Note: The following is the full text of what Harry Reid just said on the floor of the Senate. As I mentioned, he is only talking about the Redskins name, but he could easily have expanded these remarks to include Chief Wahoo.]
Yesterday, all of America watched as Commissioner Adam Silver and the NBA acted justly in punishing Donald Sterling for his hateful, racist behavior. Commissioner Silver banned Mr. Sterling from the NBA for life and imposed a stiff monetary penalty on him as well. I, along with all America, applaud the NBA's work in swiftly moving to stamp out bigotry from its ranks.
Commissioner Silver and NBA leadership have set the standard for how professional sports organizations should act in the face of racism. I wonder, has the leadership of the National Football League taken notice of the NBA's decisive action? How long will the NFL continue to do nothing as one of its teams bears a name that inflicts so much pain on Native Americans? It is untoward of Daniel Snyder to try and hide behind "tradition" in refusing to change the name of the team. Tradition? What tradition? A tradition of racism is all that name leaves in its wake. Mr. Snyder surely knows that in sports the only tradition that matters is winning. I urge Daniel Snyder to do what is morally right and remove this degrading term from the league by changing his team's name.
It's been done before -- right here in Washington, D.C. Seventeen years ago the owner of the Washington Bullets, the late Abe Pollin, saw all of the gun violence and murders taking place in the D.C. area and voluntarily decided that he didn't want any association with bullets. Abe Pollin changed the organization's name from the Washington Bullets to the Washington Wizards. It's not that difficult. Snyder could invite the fans to choose, or even have a few high school students pick a new name. Choosing a new name will be easy. But since Dan Snyder fails to show any leadership, the NFL should take an assist from the NBA and pick up the slack. It would be a slam dunk.
For far too long the NFL has been sitting on its hands, doing nothing while an entire population of Americans has been denigrated. I say to Commissioner Roger Goodell, it is time to act. Remove this hateful term from your league's vocabulary. Follow the NBA's example and rid the league of bigotry and racism. Your fans will support it.
Chris Weigant blogs at:
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