The NFL Competition Committee have spoken—in 2015 officials have been instructed to take an uncompromising stance on offensive, threatening and derogatory language. However, while derogatory language is being punished on-field, the move stinks of hypocrisy while off-field the league refuses force the Washington Redskins to change their racially insensitive name.
It is not a new rule, but in light of the Jonathan Martin bullying scandal, and the entrance of Michael Sam—the first openly gay NFL player—into the league, it is no surprise that this become a point of real emphasis for officials.
They have been told to assess a 15 yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty each and every time they hear any offensive, derogatory or intimidating language directed towards fans, officials, or players from either coaches and sideline staff or players themselves. Unsurprisingly, of particular emphasis were homophobic and racial slurs.
On the one hand, this is commendable. While many players are against the new rules, and have pointed out—for example—that for a black player to call a teammate by the N-Word is often a sign of endearment, as we saw with the Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin, this sets a dangerous precedent, which can quickly spiral out of control. The NFL and it’s players are expected to be an example for society, and especially for younger college and high-school players, and sending this message now, and doing it uncompromisingly is a positive step, so long as it can be properly managed and enforced.
However on the other hand, it is a move that once again demonstrates the disconnect between the way the NFL deals with players and coaches, and the way it deals with owners. Recently, for example, there has been controversy over the apparently lenient punishment the NFL is planning to level against Colts owner Jim Irsey. Irsey, who has a history of drug and alcohol abuse was recently arrested for DUI and possession of controlled substances.
Irsey refused a blood test at the time of his arrest, and instead chose to have his driving license suspended for a year—apparently knowing that a blood test would have revealed much more significant infractions on his part—yet in spite of this, many now expect that Irsey will only be banned for 3-4 games. Around the league, the consensus was that a player in a similar situation would have faced a much stiffer punishment, and that owners should be held to a higher standard anyway.
Like the Irsey debacle, this language crackdown once again indicates this double standard.
For many Native Americans, the term “Redskin” is as offensive as the N-Word would be for an African-American. Some, including RedskinFacts.com, have argued that because the term originally had a neutral connotation, its use remains innocuous. Others have disputed this, painting a far more dark, and hurtful history for the term.
However even if it truly started as benign, the same would be true of the N-Word, which was simply a devolution of the Spanish/Portuguese word Negro, meaning black, to its latin root “niger”. However, just like the N-Word, “Redskin” underwent a transformation into a derogatory term somewhere along its evolution, and is viewed by very few Native Americans as neutral or innocuous any more.
Worse still, while the N-Word has been re-appropriated by parts of the black community—much as queer has by the LGBTQ community—the same cannot be said about the term Redskin, which few, if any, modern Native Americans would use to describe themselves. Indeed, so offensive is the term to many natives, that the term has even been banned in court documents relating to the team.
Let’s be clear, like the N-Word, this is not a clear cut, black-and-white sort of distinction. Some Native Americans have no issues with the term, some even support it. Like the N-Word, there may be some who use it in some circumstances with no ill intent at all. Like the N-Word, some may consider that by banning its use outright, you prevent communities from being able to re-appropriate it and rob it of its sting.
And like all language, some will say that trying to police it, in a testosterone laden, adrenaline fuled game, in the heat of the moment is an exercise in futility. Yet that is exactly what the NFL are trying to do on field, yet remain committed not to do anything about it off-field, away from the testosterone and adrenaline, in the office of Redskins owner Dan Snyder.
In truth, I doubt Snyder is a racist. I doubt he is refusing to change his team name because he wants to cause pain to Natives, or because he has any hatred towards them. He is a businessman, who is nothing if not obstinate and bullish. He owns a recognised and well established brand, and he is, understandably, hesitant to risk damaging the value of it. However much the tide may have turned against the term “Redskin” a rebrand is always tricky, costly, and runs the risk of alienating fans, and resonating poorly.
But however Snyder and the Redskins office may feel, the NFL have a unique opportunity to force the issue, to take a stand, and provide a united platform from which to denounce all kinds of derogatory and offensive language, both on and off the field. Until they do, however, all of their comments about cleaning up the image of the league, and setting an example sound strangely hollow.