The murder of George Floyd has pierced the consciousness of the nation. In the sports world, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell apologized for ignoring the nonviolent kneeling protests against police brutality toward Black people: “Without black players there would be no National Football League … and the protests around the country are emblematic of the centuries of silence, inequality and oppression of black players, coaches, fans and staff.”
Goodell failed to mention Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback whom the NFL blackballed from a playing career exactly because back in 2016 he protested against police brutality by kneeling during the national anthem.
Goodell claims the league will commit itself to addressing systemic racism issues going forward. Despite how ridiculously long it has taken just to get Goodell to say what he did recently, if they are listening now, and if the NFL truly wants to fight systemic racism, it is time for Black Americans to stand in solidarity with the oppression of Native Americans. The systemic issues facing the NFL include race, ethnicity and sexuality.
The responsibility is on the NFL leadership and its white, older team owners to right wrongs. Kaepernick’s protests have brought to bear the violent racism Black people experience at the hands of police. His leadership has shown that Black folk still are our own best advocates – that even in the midst of our oppression, we can and should still rise up – or kneel – and tell the world how they treat us.
Meanwhile, despite repeated calls for change, the NFL has insisted on keeping team names that are insensitive to Native Americans. Here in majority-Black Washington, D.C., the chocolate city with the new Black Lives Matter Plaza on the road to the White House, our NFL team bears the name “Redskins,” a flagrant example of insulting ethnocentrism toward America’s first people. The backlash because of the name has been fierce for a long time but no action has been taken. The National Congress of American Indians of the United States (NCAI) has called for the Redskins to not return to play in the District (their current stadium is in Maryland) until the team changes its name.
Last week, the Redskins did make a statement on race and police brutality. The Redskins were one of several sports franchises to share a black square on their social media account as part of the “#BlackoutTuesday” campaign. It wasn’t nearly enough. As Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) said in response to their statement on Twitter: “Want to really stand for racial justice? Change your name.”
Arguments against the change have been fueled by surveys. A 2019 web-based survey of 500 self-identified Native Americans that was reported in The Washington Post found that 68% of those polled were not offended by the Washington Redskins’ name. A 2016 Washington Post survey of 504 self-identified Native Americans found that nine in 10 Native Americans polled claimed weren’t bothered by the name. These polls have been used to silence Native people and generalize falsely to the broader Native community.
Though other polls have found that people who identify most with being Native American are the ones most likely to feel harmed by the continued use of stereotypical Native American team names and mascots, polls shouldn’t matter. Civil rights can’t wait until the public agrees. The Redskins name is racist whether a majority of Native Americans are offended by it or not. We Black sports fans can help to educate the NFL leadership on why it is racist because we know the feeling of oppression by name-calling. We should lead the cause of the name change because we know what it is like to be called “boy,” “gal” and “nigger.”
The NFL has a lot of work to do to address systemic discrimination. Roger Goodell and NFL owners have the weight on their shoulders. But, history has shown that they don’t know what to do or how to do it. With Goodell at the helm, the NFL rejected peaceful protests against police brutality. They blackballed Kaepernick from a job even as team after team clearly needed a good quarterback. NFL players like Cowboys defensive end Ryan Russell that have come out for being bisexual or gay have been ignored. Despite the ongoing efforts of activists like openly gay former football player Wade Davis, most teams have not engaged in dialogue.
While NFL is a majority-Black organization with a significantly Black fan base, to be clear, the responsibility to eradicate systemic oppression is not ours. But, we can expedite their “evolution.” Frankly, George Floyd’s murder has now made it politically expedient for leaders to get on the right side of history once and for all. For example, elected officials are doing away with old relics from another bygone era; Richmond, the former capital of the confederacy, is taking down statues on Monument Avenue that have been erected since the 1890s.
We know the horrors inflicted upon us by the state since 1619. We’ve seen “12 Years a Slave,” “Roots,” “Eyes on the Prize,” “Black Panther,” “The Color Purple” and “Do the Right Thing.” We should never turn around — even implicitly — and do what was done to us to Native Americans. Yes, we were brought here in shackles and toiled the land and built the cities.
The land on which we were property belonged to Native Americans.
A confluence of factors has now made the time ripe to remove all ethnically insensitive names from our country’s professional sports teams and we sports fans should put the pressure on the teams with our demands. Frankly, there are no sports without fans. This reality is what professional sports teams have wrestled with amid COVID-19 — whether or not to host games. The NBA plans to play again beginning July 31st. No word yet on start dates for the NHL, MLB, NFL, or NCAA.
Sports teams reflect more than just the city they represent, but these teams get all kinds of tax incentives paid for by taxpayers even though overwhelming research shows little to no return to municipalities that transfer hundreds of millions in taxpayer funds paid out to NFL teams. According to the Brookings Institution, “Indeed, there is little evidence that stadiums provide even local economic benefits. Decades of academic studies consistently find no discernible positive relationship between sports facilities and local economic development, income growth, or job creation.”
But, we love our sports. So, in 2012, Richmond, a city that is 50% Black where the Redskins practice offseason, agreed to an eight-year, $10 million contract to build the training center. To cover the deal, Richmond officials deferred millions of dollars from school improvements, in a district that is majority-Black.
And obviously, most of the Redskins roster is Black, too. While the total fanbase may not be majority-Black, our voices, as we have shown in movements time and time again, even when outnumbered, can have powerful impact.
Let’s help our Native American brothers and sisters. Just like Blacks should not be fired and exploited for NFL profit in the face of police brutality, Natives should not be ridiculed for commercial profit in one of the country’s Blackest cities.
We, Black Americans, mustn’t be complicit bystanders to others’ subjugation and humiliation. Frankly, we should already be protesting the NFL anyway because of how they have treated Kaepernick. We can not forget that Goodell’s “apology” said nothing about Kaepernick — not a word. But for those who haven’t been boycotting and for those that have, let us join forces and say loudly and clearly that we Black Washington fans will not be instruments of our own oppression. We won’t sacrifice the dignity of identity for the temporary comforts of touchdowns.
When we continue to make our voices loud and clear and that doesn’t work, let us be prepared to not buy Redskins merchandise, to stop wearing the paraphernalia we already have, remove bumper stickers from our cars, logos from our social media profiles, and keychains from our pockets. We should be prepared to cancel our tickets if we have them.
This is a Black city but it is also a global city, the home of the seat of power for the free world. Black and brown kids are everywhere and are growing up in an increasingly diverse world. Let us lead by example for the next generation. Let us show them that we stand in solidarity with all other groups that have been oppressed for capitalistic gain — beginning with our country’s first people, Native Americans.
Noted Black gay author James Baldwin once evoked in an interview with Black psychologist Kenneth Clark that “I’m delighted to know there’ve been many fewer lynchings in the year 1963 than there were in the year 1933, but I also have to bear in mind — I have to bear it in mind because my life depends on it — that there are a great many ways to lynch a man. The impulse in American society, as far as I can tell from my experience in it, has essentially been to ignore me when it could, and then when it couldn’t, to intimidate me, and when that failed, to make concessions.”
It seems the Goodell and the NFL is ready to make concessions. Let’s help them finally concede that Native Americans don’t deserve to be called “Redskins” just as we wouldn’t tolerate it if the team was named the Washington Niggers. We can and should love our Blackness, our common humanity, and our sports at the same time without hurting one another.
The death of George Floyd has shown us that our shared humanity is not all lost — the rallies worldwide of diverse voices and faces rallying for Black Lives Matter should encourage us that our voices can be heard. But first, we must speak as one human community against all forms of subjugation.
Ravi K. Perry is chair of the Department of Political Science at Howard University and is immediate past president of the Association for Ethnic Studies. He can be reached via Twitter @raviperry.