After NBA Commissioner Adam Silver levied a lifetime ban and a $2.5 million fine on L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling earlier this week, there were calls for the NFL to take similar steps to squelch intolerance within its own league. Not against an openly racist owner, per se, but rather against the Washington Redskins and their offensive name.
In the most prominent case, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) took to the Senate floor and declared that since Redskins owner Dan Snyder refused to change his team's name on his own, the NFL "should take an assist from the NBA" and force him to do so.
"It would be a slam dunk," he added.
Though well-intentioned, Reid's remarks were, to continue his terrible sports metaphors, a total air ball.
I'm all in favor of the Redskins changing their name. It's an outdated relic from a less enlightened era when bigotry often passed as quaint humor, and it's especially relevant given the team's history of virulent racial discrimination. That Snyder refuses to even concede that the name can be construed as offensive only proves he's a clueless, immoral doofus who doesn't want the hassle — and potential money loss — involved in rebranding.
That said, the two situations are hardly comparable. It's one thing for a team to have a racist moniker. It's a wholly different one for a team to have an owner with a long, infamous track record of aggressively discriminating against and degrading minorities out of racial animus.
Yes, the Redskins logo is appalling. And yes, words can be debasing, inciting, infuriating, hateful. But they are ultimately emblems, their power to harm coming from people's interpretations of them.
Sterling's brand of racism is far more pernicious. His well-documented history of profound intolerance — from settling a massive housing discrimination case, to pining for a "plantation" franchise with a white owner lording over his black players — is more than disgusting: it is actively discriminatory.
And that's where the two cases differ. The name "Redskins" is offensive, but not hostile. The word itself has never sought to boot minorities from apartments, nor likened them to beasts. Sterling, though, has made clear that he thinks minorities are inferior beings deserving of lesser treatment. The leaked tape of his latest vitriolic blathering only reaffirmed that point. His troubling past and proven willingness to act from a retrograde mentality make him unfit to hold a position of power in the game, and so he had to be removed.
Now, there is a legitimate criticism of the NFL's squeamishness when it comes to race. More worrisome than the Redskins imbroglio is the way the league handled Riley Cooper, the Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver who was caught on camera at a Kenny Chesney concert bellowing that he would "fight every ni--er here." Commissioner Roger Goodell chose not to discipline Cooper in any way since he had already been fined by the Eagles.
That more than anything speaks volumes about the NFL's hands-off approach to controversy within its ranks. Cooper got a little tsk-tsk for a racist remark that incited violence, as if it were merely a verbal slip, and not indicative of a deeper, festering intolerance.
If you want the NFL to force a team to change its name, you should be running for the pitchforks and torches when it does nothing to discipline a player with a propensity for dropping hostile N-bombs.
Silver was right to boot Sterling forever. And I hope that Washington one day soon has a football team with a benign name. But the two situations are too dissimilar to draw an "if-then-so" case between them.
The implicit racism of the Redskins name should itself be cause enough for a rebranding. And some day, when Snyder is gone, it will be.
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