ESPN columnist Rick Reilly wants you to know that he will not "fall in line" with the handful of his media colleagues who have opted to stop using the term "Washington Redskins." On the contrary, the 11-time National Sportswriter of the Year has painted those calling for change as the true villains in the ongoing controversy swirling around the NFL team, going as far as to compare them to those who forced Native Americans onto reservations.
A week after NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell conceded that the league should listen to anyone offended by the name of the professional football team in D.C., Reilly entered the fray with a Sept. 18 column about the debate.
I guess this is where I'm supposed to fall in line and do what every other American sports writer is doing. I'm supposed to swear I won't ever write the words "Washington Redskins" anymore because it's racist and offensive and a slap in the face to all Native Americans who ever lived. Maybe it is.
After beginning his column by conceding that "maybe" the team's name is as offensive as many claim, Reilly justified his dedication to the status quo by citing examples of Native Americans that he knows or has met who don't mind it, including his father-in-law and groups of high school students.
"The whole issue is so silly to me," Reilly's wife's father, a member of the Blackfeet tribe, told him. "The name just doesn't bother me much. It's an issue that shouldn't be an issue, not with all the problems we've got in this country."
Preoccupied with explaining any potential change to those not offended, Reilly opted not to address the concerns of Oneida Nation Representative Ray Halbritter, who has spoken out against "the racial slur" in the team's name.
"We do not deserve to be called redskins," Halbritter said in a radio ad that the Oneida Nation ran in Washington ahead of the team's season-opening appearance on "Monday Night Football" earlier this month, according to The Associated Press. "We deserve to be treated as what we are – Americans."
Similarly, Reilly didn't call out U.S. Congressman Tom Cole in the same manner that he cited the stances of Peter King of Sports Illustrated and Christine Brennan of USA TODAY Sports. King and Brennan have decided to stop using the term "Redskins" to cover the team. As Reilly framed it in his column, both sportswriters are members of a "White America" imposing its will on Native Americans.
Reilly's column made no mention of Cole, who is described as "the sole tribal enrolled Native American currently serving in Congress" at his website and was one of 10 members of Congress to send a letter to Goodell and team owner Dan Snyder urging change earlier this year.
The May 10 letter to Goodell and Snyder stated that "Native Americans throughout the country consider the 'R-word' a racial, derogatory slur akin to the 'N-word' among African Americans or the 'W-word' among Latinos," according to The Associated Press.
In an interview with LaVar Arrington and Chad Dukes on 106.7 The Fan in Washington last week, Goodell expressed a newfound willingness to listen to those protesting the name, signaling a potential shift in his view of the matter.
“Well, as you guys know, I grew up in Washington. So, the Colts were my team early on, and then I became a Redskins fan,” Goodell responded when asked by Dukes if the power to alter the team name rested solely with Snyder, who has previously insisted that he will "never" agree to a change. “I know the team name is part of their history and tradition -- and that’s something that’s important to the Redskins' fans -- and I think what we have to do though is we have to listen. If one person’s offended, we have to listen. And, ultimately, it is Dan’s decision. But it is something that I want all of us to go out and make sure we’re listening to our fans, listening to people who have a different view, and making sure that we continue to do what’s right to make sure that team represents the strong tradition and history that it has for so many years.”
While choosing not to engage public comments from Halbritter, Cole and any other Native Americans who find the name of Snyder's team to be offensive, Reilly attacked Goodell's expressed willingness to listen to even one person offended with a slippery slope argument.
One person? I know an atheist who is offended by religious names like the New Orleans Saints and Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. There are people who who don't think Ole Miss should be the Rebels. People who lost family to Hurricanes. There are peods promotes paganism. Shall we listen to all of them?
To conclude his column, Reilly took a shocking swipe at those who have come out against the team name. Feigning the point of view of a Redskins critic, Reilly compared the urge to amend the nickname of a football team with the practice of forcibly relocating Native Americans to reservations.
Trust us. We know what's best. We'll take this away for your own good, and put up barriers that protect you from ever being harmed again.
Kind of like a reservation.
That comparison at the conclusion was so jarring that people weren't just questioning Reilly but also his editors at ESPN.
"This sentence is a fireable offense," wrote Robert Wheel in thorough -- and profane -- dismantling of the column at NFL blog Kissing Suzy Kolber. "The railroading of Native Americans into reservations upon removing them from their lands is one of our nation’s biggest embarrassments. Reilly uses it as a fucking punch line. He’s proven himself so insensitive throughout the article that it almost doesn’t shock by the end, but this is the equivalent of making sharecropping or concentration camps into kickers for a column. Not only should Reilly be fired, but his editor should probably be fired for even letting this come to light."
Likewise, Tim Marchman at Deadspin was at a loss to explain Reilly's logic as well as how this piece could have been published with such a kicker.
"We don't know why he's essentially equating criticism of overtly racist iconography with the forced relocation of entire nations, or how anyone could possibly publish this; we're not sure we want to know," Marchman wrote.
Dave Zirin of The Nation described the column as "the Most Irredeemably Stupid Defense of the Redskins Name You Will Ever Read" and issued a challenge to Reilly, to test his stance on the controversy.
A simple test for Rick Reilly: answer the challenge of Ray Halbritter of the Oneida Nation. Go to his house, look at his grandchildren and say, "My goodness these are some cute little Redskins." If it is really a name of honor, you will make the trip and say it to the Halbritters. If you won’t, then you are completely full of it. News flash: he won’t.
Could Reilly do that? Could anyone?