The Common Good

What the NFL Doesn’t Want You to Think About

“Redskins.” The name of Washington, D.C.’s football team is a racial slur, a racist epithet. The U.S. trademark office agrees; so does the dictionary. But more importantly, Native American people feel it. How important is that to the rest of us? That is the moral question for all of us: are we going to show respect for our nation’s original citizens? 

In an insightful column for the Chicago Tribune, Clarence Page compared NBA Commissioner Adam Silver’s decision to ban Clippers owner Donald Sterling “for life” for his private racist comments, with the decision yet to be made by the NFL and Washington’s owner to change a name deeply perceived as a public racist comment. “That’s the question at the heart in the name dispute. Who gets respect,” says Page.

Think about the name. Say it in your head or out loud in a private space. What comes to mind? Try to imagine why Native Americans feel the way they do. 

I decided to go to the Washington team’s website. I searched under “changing the team’s name,” and several hundred official pieces came up — none of them about the controversial issue, except one announcing a new foundation owner Dan Snyder just created to “serve needs” in tribal communities. Of course, that only fueled the controversy about the team’s name. Most were about this week’s NFL draft.

But then I found something else on the website — a video of Dan and Tanya Snyder being honored for their work on behalf of a group called the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. I watched Snyder’s speech, in which he said something I hadn’t heard before: the first of their three daughters was a “2-pound miracle baby.” Snyder said, “After that, we decided to dedicate our lives to children.” Perhaps this could be the best way for Dan Snyder to understand the deep problems with the name of his team — the effect of the racial slur on Native American children, and other children too.

I recalled what Peggy Flanagan recently said in Sojourners magazine on the topic of our football team’s name. Peggy is a Sojourners board member and, because she is like a daughter in our family’s household, I have seen how becoming a mother has shaped her perspective on everything. Peggy said:

As a Native American woman and mother, I am concerned about how my infant daughter will see herself represented and portrayed in popular culture and the media as she grows up. Multiple studies have shown that American Indian sports mascots and other negative stereotypes are detrimental to the self-esteem and development of Native American youth and exacerbate racial inequities. The continued use of the Washington Redsk*ns mascot sends my daughter, and other Native and non-Native youth, the message that somehow it’s okay for her to be called a racial slur. In her formative years, she will continually see herself portrayed as less than human….When you deny people their humanity, it is easier to disrespect them and their culture.

I am not a mascot. My daughter is not a mascot. My people are not mascots. We are human beings. We are still here.

I believe Dan Snyder should talk to Peggy Flanagan and meet her daughter Siobhan Ma'iingan, who is like a granddaughter. They are both very persuasive.

But if an appeal for the sake of the children doesn’t work with Snyder, it’s time to raise the tactics against his team until he makes the change he once said he would NEVER make. (Emphasis Snyder’s)

People will have to walk away from the name of the Washington football team. Both Democratic and Republican leaders, including President Obama, have called for the name change. Tribal leaders have pleaded and protested for the change. We should withhold advertising, organize boycotts, run campaigns. Already, local congregations in D.C. are “banning” the wearing of the team gear with the racial name so everybody will feel safe and welcome in their services.

The difference with the NBA decision is that the basketball league is predominantly black and the players were ready to stand up and boycott the play-offs if strong action against Sterling wasn’t taken. Page said, “If the NFL was two-thirds Native American, instead of two thirds black, we wouldn’t be having the same conversation.”

So we must amplify our public statements — like one just made by Seattle Seahawk Richard Sherman, calling for a new discussion on the “Redskins” name after the strong NBA decision about racism. Sherman said the NFL is a “bottom line league,” so we may have to affect that before owner Dan Snyder and Commissioner Roger Goodell will be moved.

But for people of faith the “bottom line” is a moral one.  Native Americans compose only 1.5 percent of the American people. So it’s time to demonstrate our moral and human solidarity with the first people of this nation and their children. That would be a better bottom line. The time has come to change the name of the Washington Redskins.

Join me. Sign on to ask Commissioner Goodell to "Sack the Skins" and get racism out of the NFL. 

Jim Wallis is president of Sojourners. His book, The (Un)Common Good: How the Gospel Brings Hope to a World Divided, the updated and revised paperback version of On God’s Side, will be released this spring. Follow Jim on Twitter: @JimWallis.

Image: Ben Sutter / Sojourners. Logo used under critical commentary fair use protection. From Wikipedia Files.

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