A day after NBA commissioner Adam Silver banned an owner for life for making racist remarks, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) called on the NFL to take action on its own issue of racism.
The NBA banned Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling for life and will attempt to force him to sell the team after recording surfaced of him telling his girlfriend not to bring black fans — including Magic Johnson — to his games, and those efforts to rid its game of bigotry should inspire the NFL to take similar action against the name of the Washington Redskins, Reid said during a speech on the Senate floor Wednesday afternoon.
“Yesterday, all of America watched while commissioner Adam Silver and the National Basketball Association punished Donald Sterling for his racist behavior,” Reid said. “I with almost all of America applaud the NBA’s work to swiftly move to stamp out bigotry in its ranks. Commissioner Silver and the league have set the standard for how professional sports associations should act in the face of racism. I wonder today, madam president, how the leadership of the National Football League, that money-making machine, I wonder if they have taken notice of the NBA’s decisive action. How long will the NFL continue to do nothing, zero, as one of its teams bears a name that inflicts so much pain on Native Americans?”
“The National Football League should take an assist from the NBA and pick up the slack” for Washington owner Daniel Snyder’s continued refusal to consider a name change, Reid added. “For far too long the NFL has been sitting on its hands doing nothing while an entire population of Americans has been denigrated. So I say to commissioner Roger Goodell…remove this hateful term from your league’s vocabulary and rid the league of racism and bigotry.”
Reid, who has previously called on the team to change its name, isn’t alone: the Oneida Indian Nation, who led a public campaign to change the football team’s name throughout the 2013 season, issued a statement Tuesday evening calling on the NFL to follow the NBA’s leadership.
“By banning Clippers owner Donald Sterling, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and other NBA team owners have taken a courageous stand against racism in professional sports, acknowledging that professional leagues must not be a platform to promote bigotry,” Oneida representative Ray Halbritter said in the statement. “In taking such appropriate disciplinary action, the NBA has shown other leagues, including the NFL, that they have a moral responsibility to take disciplinary action against people like Washington owner Dan Snyder, who also continues to proudly promote bigotry by using a dictionary-defined racial slur as his team’s name.”
Native American groups have called for a name change for decades, and in the last year, they have received the renewed support of members of Congress, prominent civil rights groups, at least one other NFL executive, and even President Obama.
In many ways, the two cases seem totally different. Sterling was caught on tape displaying bigotry that few can dispute; the use of the word “Redskins,” meanwhile, is not necessarily as widely accepted as racist, and neither team owner Daniel Snyder nor Goodell see it as such. And there’s no evidence that Snyder feels any racial animus toward Native Americans.
But perhaps the cases of Snyder and Sterling have some similarities. The NBA faced criticism this week because it didn’t take action against Sterling until it had explicit, visceral evidence of his racism, even though it ignored a history of housing discrimination and employment discrimination allegations against Sterling that, while not as explicit, carried far more damaging consequences than did the words espoused on the recording.
Similarly, Native American groups claim that the use of the word “Redskins” as a team name — and other Native American terms and images like it — isn’t just racist, but that it also has damaging consequences for their people. Psychological and sociological studies have shown that the stereotypes perpetuated by these names have harmful effects on Native American communities, exacerbating many of the issues like high rates of depression, suicide, alcoholism, and poverty those communities already face.
Look at it through that lens, and it’s not hard to see that there are parallels between the NFL’s continued sanction of the term “Redskins” and the NBA’s past decisions to stand by Sterling even as he systematically discriminated against African-Americans in ways that harmed their communities and their livelihoods. Washington’s team name and the NFL’s continued devotion to it have harmful effects on a racial minority group. If we’re going to criticize the NBA for not acting on the issues that had major consequences for African-Americans, that same criticism should apply to the NFL, which shouldn’t need any more evidence than it already has to take action against the bigotry it promotes against Native Americans.
Minnesota Rep. Betty McCollum, who has also been an outspoken advocate for changing the name, issued a similar statement Wednesday afternoon:
“The National Basketball Association is setting the standard for dealing with intolerance, racism and hate speech in professional sports,” McCollum said. “They showed that when a wealthy owner promotes racist ideas a league and its other owners can act swiftly to condemn that behavior. It is my hope that the National Football League and its owners will follow suit and do everything in their power to ensure that the racist name of their Washington franchise is changed. The NFL and its owners have the ability to influence that change. I call on them to follow the lead of the NBA and use that ability to force a name change for their Washington franchise.”