Where Does the NFL Stand on Racism, Bigotry These Days?

Updated Mar 13, 2014

Does the name Bobby Mitchell ring a bell? He started playing for the Washington Redskins in 1962. In fact, he was the first African-American to play for the team—owned then by George Preston Marshall and the last in the NFL to integrate its squad.

I can remember the Washington Redskins with such clarity because they were the only professional football team that we could get on TV in Winston-Salem, N.C. So every Sunday we would watch the Redskins’ games. Eventually, I became a fan of the Redskins, and moving to D.C. to go to graduate school only intensified my fondness for the team.

Quite honestly, I became such a big fan that what they did on Sunday affected my disposition on Monday. If they won on Sunday, I would have a cheery Monday, while if they lost on Sunday my Monday was not such a good day. My dear friend Bill Earl and I often laugh now about how the Redskins took us to fame or shame.

During the early days of watching the team, I never really thought about the name Redskins. While I was very aware of the N-word and its effect on me, I never thought about what effect the word redskins possibly had on Native Americans. I attribute my lack of knowledge to not having a more global view of the world. Sometimes our community thinking doesn’t cause us to look outside of it. I watched a lot of westerns growing up and obviously heard the term a lot yet didn’t understand the offensive nature of the word.

Certainly America’s conscious has been tweaked and revamped; thus, our familiarity with diverse people and languages has increased. In higher education for example, colleges such as St. John’s University (New York) and Miami University of Ohio changed their nicknames out of respect for Native Americans. St. John’s University is now called the Red Storm and Miami University of Ohio is now called the Red Hawks.  Some might ask about the Florida State University Seminoles. From all reports, the Seminole Tribe of Florida—said to be the only tribe never to sign a formal peace treaty with the United States—is proud of the association with the athletic teams and their “Unconquered” motto.

Over the years, a segment of the Native American community has come out against the term redskins being used as the moniker for the Washington football team. They say it defames and humiliates Native Americans. The current owner, Daniel Snyder, says that he has met with a significant number of Native Americans and that they approve of the name.

Segment-driven data are nearly always going to get you mixed results. The analogy here would be if you surveyed some African-Americans about the use of the N-word you would get mixed results. If you are younger, then you may be less offended because you hear it in music and your generation uses it as a term of endearment. Older African-Americans would take offense to the N-word because of the social justice issues related to its use.

I believe the NFL and team owners have to be sensitive to cultures and accompanying perceptions. A few years ago, the National Basketball Association’s franchise in Washington was called the Bullets. Their name was changed to the Wizards in response to the number of shootings in the D.C. area. The thinking of the ownership at the time was to do what was in the best interest of the community and that was to change the name.

Now, the issue of what we call each other is front and center again as the N-word controversy approaches the football field. The NFL is considering penalizing a player’s team 15 yards if he is heard using the N-word.

First, let me applaud the league for recognizing that the use of the word is bad.  However, I along with many others believe that the implementation stage will become problematic. Of course, players will deny saying it, so how will that be reviewed? It must be said that a lot of these players both Black and White grew up using this word without consequences. Imagine a scenario where the game lasts longer because the referees are trying to sort out who used the N-word.  Suppose multiple players on both teams use the N-word at the same time? Who do you penalize? These and other questions will come up if this rule ever goes into effect.

My long-held position is that we should eradicate the word from our vocabulary.  Simply stop using the word! Let the record industry know that the word can no longer be used in their raps. Tell friends to stop using the word in jokes. As African-Americans, we must lead the charge. We cannot expect others to do what we must do for ourselves.

Another NFL season is only months away, and it will be interesting to see whether the controversy over the nickname for the Washington football team continues. I believe it will. As important will be whether the NFL adopts the N-word rule.

The NFL and its owners have some important issues in front of them.