A Change Will Come

LANDOVER, MD - OCTOBER 15:  The Washington Redskins flag is waved against the Tennessee Titans at FedExField on October 15, 2
LANDOVER, MD - OCTOBER 15: The Washington Redskins flag is waved against the Tennessee Titans at FedExField on October 15, 2006 in Landover, Maryland. The Titans defeated the Redskins 25-22. (Photo by Larry French/Getty Images)

From one perspective, the campaign to force the Washington football team to stop promoting a dictionary-defined racial slur has already won its most significant battles. The campaign has sparked national discussion concerning the NFL and the Washington team's refusal to openly confront the issue.

In the past two years alone, the campaign to change the Washington team name has garnered support from a broad coalition of civil rights groups, sports figures, media organizations and political leaders, including a majority of the U.S. Senate and the President of the United States. Tens of thousands of people joined our campaign, and the United States government has rescinded trademark protections for the team's continued use of the racial slur. Polls show a sharp rise in the number of Americans who now say they oppose the NFL's continued use of the R-word, which was the term screamed at Native Americans as we were dragged at gunpoint from our lands.

As an educational effort for the hearts and minds of a fast-changing America, this campaign has been an unmitigated success. With Washington team owner Dan Snyder now ranked as one of the most loathed figures in professional sports, the NFL's intransigence has become a stain on the league's history -- one that future generations will look back upon with disbelief and disgust.

However, it is clear that the campaign has yet to fully succeed. The Washington franchise is still using the slur, and the NFL has so far refused to take any action to right this historic wrong. In his stadium, Mr. Snyder still proudly honors the memory of George Preston Marshall, the infamous segregationist who originally gave the team the name.

The obvious question this raises, then, is why have all of the aforementioned successes still not brought about the ultimate objective of seeing the team end its use of a racial slur as its mascot? What accounts for the gap between the remarkable and indisputable progress and the continued use of this offensive moniker? The answer lies with fans.

While Americans like to ascribe all sorts of emotional and moral meaning to their favorite teams, the NFL has proven itself to be an emotionless, amoral corporation. The league seems to react only when it fears fan revolts may jeopardize its $9 billion annual revenue. So far such a revolt has not happened. Indeed, while many fans have expressed their displeasure with the league's use of the R-word, not enough have been willing to match that displeasure with actions that put a real price tag on the league for its continued bigotry.

The good news, of course, is that a league so singularly focused on profit probably does not need much of an economic nudge from fans to finally do the right thing. A few Washington games with diminished attendance might be all that is required (and let's be frank: that's not so far-fetched a possibility considering how consistently horrible and mismanaged the football team Mr. Snyder has put on the field over the last many years).

The bad news, though, is that many fans still want to see sports not as a modifiable reflection of reality, but as a frivolous escape from reality -- one that should not be disturbed, even by the most moral of causes.

That impulse is certainly understandable -- at a moment of economic, political and environmental crises, we all need a periodic escape. But there is a difference between a rejuvenating escape into entertainment and a destructive retreat from a moral imperative. The campaign to get Roger Goodell and the other owners to support ending the continued to use of its power to denigrate people of color is most certainly the latter.

No doubt, the NFL does not want fans to see it that way. The billionaire owners and their minions want fans to continue reflexively forking over their money to be entertained, and to do so without any thought about the league's inaction on domestic violence, player suicides, astoundingly high rates of traumatic brain injuries, racism or other catastrophes in its midst. In other words, the NFL wants football enthusiasts to believe that being a loyal fan means joining the league in turning a blind eye to moral crises.

The moment more fans reject that paradigm and hold the league accountable will be the moment things will finally change for the better. In a more diverse and tolerant America that increasingly rejects for-profit bigotry, that moment is coming sooner rather than later -- but it cannot come soon enough.