There is a professional football team in Washington, a member club of the National Football League. Like the other 31 teams, the Washington team has a nickname, but its descriptor is a pejorative reference to Native Americans. When teaching Sports Law this summer, I did not use that nickname to refer to the club. The term is disrespectful and racially offensive. I did not fully appreciate, however, how many people shared my point of view. This week the great newspaper of the Nation's Capital - the Washington Post - announced that it would no longer use the appellation the club has chosen. It wrote in its editorial:
While we wait for the National Football League to catch up with thoughtful opinion and common decency, we have decided that, except when it is essential for clarity or effect, we will no longer use the slur ourselves.
It joins numerous other major newspapers and journalists, including the Seattle Times, the Kansas City Star, the Oregonian, the Orange County Register and the San Francisco Chronicle, on the growing list of media outlets that have found the name insulting and have vowed to shun the Washington "Nothings." NFL notables Phil Simms, Tony Dungy and Tom Jackson have offered similar declarations. Since 2006, NFL referee Mike Carey, the first black referee to work a Super Bowl, has declined to officiate Washington games with the League's approval.
There are some, of course, who apparently enjoy the disparagement of other races. Mike Ditka asked:
What's all the stink over the Redskin name? It's so much bullshit, it's incredible. We're going to let the liberals of the world run this world. It was said out of reverence, out of pride to the American Indian. Even though it was called a Redskin, what are you going to call them, a Brownskin?
Ditka is sure he is right: "That's the way it is." Rick Morrissy of the Chicago Sun Times, responded that Ditka has "shaken me out of my stupor," announcing he, too, would no longer use the despicable term.
The owner of the Washington team, Daniel Snyder, has repeatedly vowed not to change his club's name. He may just be stubborn or, perhaps, foolish. Most likely, like many club owners, he does not want to be told what to do and how he should brand his product. I would hope that Snyder does not wish to offend Native Americans. He just wants to do what he wants to do. What Snyder must appreciate, however, is that his club is just one team in a league and that bad press affects all NFL club members.
These past few months we have seen how the National Basketball Association moved to swiftly eject the miscreant owner of the Los Angeles Clippers from the owners' club after he privately expressed his views about persons of color. Donald Sterling's very presence in the NBA's inner circle risked the business good will of the entire enterprise. It affected all NBA owners. While it may be regrettable that it took a billion dollars for him and a billion for his wife to cut the NBA cord, the deed is done.
However, so far it does not appear that criticism alone will change Snyder's mind, and it is not likely that the NFL magnates or commissioner will pressure him to change his club's nickname without proof that his intransigence jeopardizes their interests. That is where the shunning may play a role. If the Washington club can be considered a pariah, Snyder may be contaminating the League.
Those who still don't get it - who think that the Washington nickname is so much a part of pro football tradition that it does not carry a negative and insulting connotation - wait until the protests build. There was a time when racial slurs were very much a part of the American discourse. Each immigrant group brought along to America its own aspersion that quickly became a part of the common parlance. African-Americans suffered the indignity of the "n-word." Slowly - perhaps too slowly - these insults have left public speech, although they remain a part of the private dialogue. It is hard to regret their disappearance.
Until the time comes when the NFL, or the sponsors, or others in positions of power convince or coerce Mr. Snyder into changing the team's nickname, we are left with the moral power of shunning. After a while, the Washington club will become known as the "Nothings." It is what Snyder deserves.
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