NFL Players Getting Fined for Racial Slurs Exposes a Massive Oversight


It's the NFL off-season and while players are on vacation and there's no good excuse to get debauched on a Sunday any longer, something else is afoot — NFL rule changes.

On Feb. 22, news broke that the NFL's Competition Committee is considering an automatic 15-yard penalty for use of the "n-word" on the field and presumably other racial slurs. This opens up a glaring hole: What about the Redskins? The name of an entire football team is considered by many to be a racial slur with no good arguments against changing it. Roger Goodell, the NFL commissioner, and Daniel Snyder, Washington Redskins owner, need to wake up.

Roger Goodell and Dan Snyder, image credit AP

As the rule change regarding certain racial slurs is being reviewed this week, Simon Moya-Smith, a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation took to the 'net to take this "noble" but "clueless" gesture to task:

"As a Native American, a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation and someone who participates in the Native American community and doesn't just claim to be Native American because I have a picture somewhere of a great-grandma who had high cheekbones, I wonder: Hey NFL, why aren't you just as pissed about the R-word?"

Now normally I don't read message board comments, since for every observation worth contemplating there are always ten others utterly devoid of intelligent content. But I made the mistake of glancing at the posts under Moya-Smith's CNN editorial. I'll spare you the garbage, but want to highlight three comments that are actually quite common counter-arguments to a name change.

1. "This is America. Here we do not outlaw words. True, the NFL is a private business and can do as it pleases for penalties and punishments, but even ugly words have their place."

2. "There is nothing ugly about 'Redskin.' It is only the professional outrage mongers who are making it an issue."

3. "You need to rename the Vikings. It's offensive to swedish people. Oh wait, no one cares. It's a team, not a racial-hate group. Get over it. It's 2014."

Since these three embody the gamut of pro-Washington Redskin apologetics, it's worthwhile to deconstruct them.

The "America is the land of the free," argument. First of all, it's a dumb thing to say to a Native American. But notice that Moya-Smith and many other advocates do not argue that the "redskin" slur should be legally banned, because a private business has every right to proscribe hateful rhetoric, and the NFL is a private organization. Therefore, the First Amendment-based outrage is irrelevant to this discussion and a logical trap.

We're left with the logically limp insistence that "even ugly words have their place," which ignores the glaring fact that it probably shouldn't be the title of a multimillion dollar sports franchise.

The argument that, "There's nothing wrong with it." The history of the term "redskin" is complex and goes back hundreds of years. But we're not talking about hundreds of years ago. We're talking about how people feel about it right now and the idea that the substance of a person could be described by the color of their skin.

Moya-Smith recounts a story of stepping onto the D train in New York City and seeing a man across from him wearing a Washington Redskins hat. He stared him down, so the man asked if he had a problem. Moya-Smith said he did:

"'What a privilege,' I told him, 'to be able to walk into a subway and not have to see someone wearing a hat with the stereotypical likeness of your people on it and a racist pejorative to accompany the image.'"

The argument to "Leave it alone, it's 2014." The final remark here similarly wreaks of privilege. For one thing, the term "viking" is purely historical, referring to the ancestors of modern Scandinavians, who include Norwegians, Danes, and Icelanders as well as Swedes. More importantly, Scandinavians never experienced anything like the persecution endured by Native Americans throughout American history. Secondly, the fact that it's 2014 can't wipe away the terrible history of what American immigrants ("settlers") did to the indigenous Americans.

This brings us to the nut of the issue: The Washington Redskins need to change their name because the experience of Native Americans morally compels them to change it.

As we wait to see what the rules committee comes up with, we should be prepared to pounce on any shift. Racial slurs cannot have a home in the NFL. The best thing that Roger Goodell and Daniel Snyder could do is start with the one plastered all over our nation's capital.