Amid the noise of the modern media, sometimes you have to listen for the silences to understand what is actually being said. This is a good way to understand the recent news that the National Football League is considering penalties against players if they utter one of the most despicable racial slurs against African Americans.
In considering this course of action, the NFL is endorsing a laudable principle -- one that says racial slurs should have no place in any business, much less a $9-billion-a-year sports conglomerate. But in simultaneously saying nothing about one of its own teams' continued promotion of a racial slur, the NFL is also acknowledging that it is willing to tolerate the very bigotry it claims to oppose.
That team, of course, is the Washington football franchise. Its name is accurately defined in the dictionary and by the United States Patent Office as a racial slur. In light of that, it is not surprising that the name was originally given to the team by owner George Preston Marshall, who was one of America's most famous segregationists, and who only allowed his franchise to be integrated under legal threat by the federal government.
In the last few months, civil rights groups, public health organizations, religious leaders, sports icons, city councils, Members of Congress of both parties and the President of the United States have all called on the NFL to stop using the "R-word" and change the Washington team's name. Even the NBA's David Stern, a fellow professional sports commissioner, said NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell should not tolerate the promotion of such an offensive term.
In each of these statements, leaders have simply repeated the same rationale the NFL is now citing in its possible decision to sanction players who use the "N-word." And yet, the NFL still refuses to act. Why?
Officially, the NFL has claimed that the "R-word" somehow honors Native Americans. They have made this claim even though the word was screamed at my ancestors as they were dragged at gunpoint off their lands. Obviously, this word is not a term of respect. So again, why won't the league simply do the honorable thing, stand on the right side of history and change the name?
Last week, ESPN's Bomani Jones offered a compelling theory on his national television show. Evaluating the double standard of a league punishing players for using one racial slur yet promoting another racial slur, he said, "The NFL is sending the message that racial slurs are only OK if they can monetize them like they do with the Washington Redskins."
It would be both misguided and tragic if this were true. It would be misguided because there is strong reason to believe that the league would actually benefit from a boost in new merchandise purchases if the team changes its name. More important, it would be tragic because it would signal the league is putting shortsighted financial concerns over the most basic ideals of mutual respect.
As so many have said this year, Native Americans do not deserve to be treated as targets of a racial slur by one of the most famous and powerful brands in the world. We deserve to be treated as what we are. We are not redskins. We are Americans. It is time for the NFL to end its silence and finally compel the Washington team to recognize us as such.