The NFL is Driving Me Away

There are few things in this world that I love more than football.  I have been a fan and avid watcher of the sport for more than three decades.  Some of my fondest memories involve games watched with my father or with friends.  I have spent my hard-earned money on tickets and merchandise, and countless hours reading about my favorite team and even playing fantasy football.  I have been a loyal consumer of the product that the NFL has been selling, and it has brought me great joy.

So, why are they driving me away?

Somewhere in the back of my mind, I guess I always knew there was a dark side.  After all, this is a sport based on violence and brutality.  Sure, there is strategy involved, but that strategy still involves gigantic men destroying their bodies.  And, the ungodly amount of money involved cannot help but corrupt those who run the league.  But, somehow, I was always able to ignore all of that because I loved watching the game so much.  I have been a loyal fan, willing to turn a blind eye.

But, I cannot pretend to be blind anymore.

Today’s news about Ray Rice is the tipping point perhaps, but it is merely one of many illustrations of just how corrupt the NFL has become.  Like any big business, they are driven by profit, and as long as the money keeps rolling in, they are willing to condone just about any sort of behavior.

Let’s look at the Rice situation.  Here is a player who was seen as one of the league’s “good guys.”  He played well for a team that won the Super Bowl just a few years ago.  But, he committed the fatal error of doing something awful and getting caught.  To the league, the action does not matter nearly as much as the getting caught.  It would be foolish to believe that Rice is the first player to abuse his partner.  He just happened to do it on camera.  So, since the league could not ignore it, they did the least they could possibly do to quiet the critics.  They condemned his behavior and suspended him for 2 games.  They told us just how seriously they take the issue of domestic violence, then suspended Rice for just one-eighth of the season.  And, they were more than willing to sweep the entire incident under the rug.  But, the public, to their credit, would not let them.  After the uproar that followed what was seen as a far-too-lenient punishment, the league vowed to re-evaluate their policy on domestic violence.  They decided that a six-game suspension should apply to any future incidents.  And, again, they were willing to consider the matter settled.  But, today, after more video evidence was leaked, revealing just how brutally Rice attacked his then-fiancée, they were again pressured into action.  Ray Rice was released by his team and suspended indefinitely by the league.  There is a real possibility that he never plays football professionally again.  But, even after all that, Rice still lands on his feet.  He does not face any criminal punishment, and he has millions of dollars to cushion his fall.

And, the NFL comes out on top.  By allowing all the blame to fall on Ray Rice (and absurdly trying to blame his fiancée for being abused), the league gets to keep selling its product to a fan base that cannot get enough.  This is not to say that Rice should not be blamed.  Of course he should.  He should be blamed, he should be punished, and he should go to jail.  But, the NFL should be blamed, as well, not for the assault, but certainly for how they dealt with it.  They did as little as they could, trying to protect themselves and their product.  That is the game they play.  For the product is all that matters.

This single-minded focus on the game and the profits they reap is what allows them to stand behind a team owner in support of a racist team name.  It is what allows them to condemn the use of illegal (but harmless) drugs like marijuana while pumping their players full of dangerous prescription painkillers.  It is what allows them to ignore the countless brain injuries caused by years of players slamming themselves into each other as hard as they can.  It is what allows them to play their game in stadiums owned by billionaires and paid for by public funds taken away from education or infrastructure.  They address only what they are forced to, only those bits of the darkness that creep out into the light.

I love football, but I don’t like it anymore.  When I see a big hit, I don’t cheer.  I wonder whether the player is destroying his brain and his body.  When I see an owner in his luxury box, I think about fans who can’t afford tickets into the stadium they are paying for.  When I see a player doing charity work and photo-ops, I wonder whether he shows the same kind of compassion to his wife.  Yet, despite all this, I still watch, because I love football.

So, why is the NFL trying to drive me away?  How difficult would it be to actually do the right thing?  Why not condemn the owner of the team with the racist name rather than the woman who was beaten by a man who just so happens to be famous for playing football?  Why not embrace efforts to protect the players who make the league possible?  Why not reach out to the fans who spend the money that has made the league so profitable and address their concerns?  We don’t want much.  We just want to watch football without feeling like we’re supporting all the awful things that happen under the league’s watch.  Is that too much to ask?

Hail To The [REDACTED]

I must get something out of the way right off the bat.  I LOVE the Washington professional football team.  I grew up rooting for them.  In fact, my earliest memories are of watching with my father as they beat the Miami Dolphins in Super Bowl XVII and as they lost to the Raiders the following year.  I have the second quarter of their victory over the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXII, in which they overcame a 10-0 deficit to put up 35 unanswered points (with an additional touchdown in the second half) playing on a loop inside my head.  I have rooted for them in the good times and the bad times.  I remember sitting in old RFK Stadium and later in Jack Kent Cooke Stadium (now FedEx Field) and shouting until my throat was hoarse.  In fact, the first full sentence I ever uttered (at least according to my parents) was an echo of the radio call broadcaster Frank Herzog used every time they crossed the goal line.  I cheered when Art Monk and Darrell Green were elected to the Hall of Fame, and I cried when Sean Taylor was taken from us far too soon.  Even as I have moved across the country, my loyalty has never wavered.

But, I HATE the name.  I don’t remember exactly when it first started to bother me.  Certainly not when I sang the team fight song while wearing a plastic hog nose as a child.  And maybe not even in the lean years after legendary coach Joe Gibbs first retired.  But, it bothers me now.  It bothers me so much that I am a bit ashamed to reveal who I root for.  So much that I always wear a sweatshirt that can be zipped up over my burgundy and gold shirt when I go out in public.  And so much that, after all these years, I have even considered the unthinkable–rooting for another team.

The name, which I can’t even bring myself to type, is a slur, plain and simple.  I don’t know how I ignored that all this time, but I can’t ignore it any longer.  It is a derogatory term that is used to refer to a people who are varied and oppressed and driven into reservations far from their historical homes.  It is a word that paints them as something less than human.  And, that is what it all comes down to.  These are human beings we are treating as mascots.  We paint a caricature on our helmets and wear headdresses whose meanings we don’t comprehend and sing songs that mock their culture.  And for what?  Tradition?  Bullshit.

Despite any claims made by ownership, fans, or hired lackeys, the name of the team (or its mascot) do nothing to celebrate the culture of any particular tribe, much less the thousands of tribes that once occupied this nation.  We are not holding them up, we are keeping them down.  Just like we have done for centuries.  Even after years of civil rights progress, we still treat Native Americans as exotic, as something different.  But, they are not.  They are people, just as we are people.  And they deserve respect, just as we do.  And, if even one person among them is offended by the name (to paraphrase the empty promise of Commissioner Roger Goodell), then the name should change.  Sports are meant to celebrate the best of what people can do.  Must we taint it by clothing it in a reminder of our worst?

There has been dispute over the origin of the name, whether it was coined by Native Americans themselves or by the European invaders who slaughtered them.  And some have pointed to various Native American schools who use the same name as proof that it is not actually offensive.  These arguments are ridiculous and miss the point.  Some African-Americans have “taken back” the word most used to disparage them, using it in song lyrics and even in conversation with each other.  Does that make it less hateful or ugly if it were to come out of my mouth?  Not at all.

Daniel Snyder, the owner of the team, claims that he has loved the team for his entire life.  That may be true.  But, that does not mean that he has to love everything about them.  It can be hard to see the flaws in the things we love, but it is not impossible.  He can take a page from another local team owner who ignored history and tradition to do what was right.  The Washington Wizards basketball team was for years known as the Bullets.  But, the owner did not want a name that referred to something as ugly as gun violence, so he changed the name.  It was the right thing to do, even if it was not easy to admit the name needed changing, and even if there was resistance from fans hanging on to nostalgia.  Snyder can do the same.  But, he is digging in his heels, as are many fans.  Why?  Does any name, and especially this name, really mean that much?  Why fight so hard to preserve racism?  Is that really worth holding on to?

There is nothing respectful in treating Native Americans the same way we do Lions or Bears, as costumes to don.  Native Americans are not Cowboys, or Packers, or Steelers, or even Vikings.  They are not a job or a persona to adopt.  Not only do we not honor them with the name, we dishonor ourselves by pretending that this is a reasonable way to treat other people.

Historically, Americans have done very little to honor Native Americans.  We have taken their lives and we have taken their land.  In fact, the very ground on which the Washington football team plays its games was forcefully taken from Native Americans.  Where is the honor in that?

Will changing the name of a football team undo centuries of wrong?  Of course not.  But, it can stop rubbing salt in a wound that has been bleeding since Europeans first set foot on this continent all those years ago.  Football is a game.  It is meant to be fun and uplifting, a way to bring people together.  We cannot do that by holding other people down.  Change the name.