The off-the-field headlines from the NFL have been exceptionally bleak lately. Ray Rice. Adrian Peterson. Greg Hardy. Ray McDonald. It’s hardly surprising that lots and lots and lots of people are pissed off. And rightly so.
But there’s one NFL owner who must be very happy to see all this bad news come along. Because before the Ray Rice story blew up, the major controversy that was threatening to overshadow what happened on the field every Sunday was the growing pressure on Dan Snyder to change the name of his team from the racist slur that it unquestionably is to something else. Anything else.
These days, of course, mainstream journalism has a hard time walking and chewing gum at the same time, much less trying to focus on multiple controversial issues simultaneously. And so, in the headlines and on the talk shows, the actual off-field violence perpetrated by the players named above trumps the rhetorical violence perpetrated by the Washington football team’s name.
Of course, this doesn’t need to be a binary choice. We should be able to hold all of these issues in front of us at the same time. Righteous outrage at the physical abuse inflicted by grown men on their loved ones (though “loved” strikes me as something of a misnomer in these cases) can — and should — still exist side by side with righteous outrage at a team that claims the racist slur it uses for a name is somehow a noble badge of honor and respect.
Let’s be clear. There’s neither honor nor respect in a label that, at best, fails to offend a tiny fraction of the people allegedly being honored. But there is no version of “I’m Black and I’m Proud!” or “We’re here! We’re queer! Get used to it!” for the R-word. No moment when a marginalized population takes up a previously reviled slur and self-consciously reappropriates as a badge of pride.
I say all this as someone born and raised in Washington. As someone who still thinks of DC as Home, even though I haven’t lived in the area for more than 30 years. As someone who grew up a passionate fan of the team. As someone who still thinks of them as My Team. Affective investments forged in childhood can be mighty powerful things, after all.
But I won’t buy or wear the gear. Not as long as the current name stays in place.
What connects all these controversies is that they showcase the immense gap between the men at the center of the league — the commissioner, the owners, the coaches, the players — and people whom those men claim to honor and respect and even love. You do not say “I love you” by punching your fiancée in the face. You do not say “I honor you” by using a racist slur as the primary trademark of your multimillion dollar business.