They could have punted. Left it up to the league office. Issued a strong statement without making actual demands. Allowed the process -- whatever that was -- to play out in due time, all while keeping the focus on basketball.
Instead, they took a stand.
When Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling's racist remarks to personal, aheam, archivist and Cobra Commander cosplay enthusiast V. Stiviano became public, National Basketball Association players acted swiftly and decisively. Individuals like LeBron James spoke out. Entire teams threatened to boycott playoff games. Through their union, players insisted that Sterling be banned and forced to sell his team, not later but right now, essentially telling their employers this much, but no more.
Faced with a similar situation, would National Football League players and their union do the same?
I suppose it's possible. But frankly, I doubt it. After all, NFL players and their union leaders already have an opportunity to tackle a source of racial offense and pain. The Washington Redskins' team name. Only they've consistently taken a knee. Earlier this week, the National Congress of American Indians and Oneida Indian Nation sent a letter -- cosigned by 77 other groups, including civil rights and religious organizations -- to every NFL player, asking them to speak out against the nickname. The same moniker that 50 U.S. Senators called a racial slur in a recent letter to league commissioner Roger Goodell.
"Because you are in the NFL, you command a level of respect and credibility when speaking out about the league's behavior," the letter says. "Indeed, players are the most publicly identifiable representatives of the league, which means your support is critical to ending this injustice."
Question: If basketball players can do the right thing, then why are football players so hesitant?
Once upon a time, they weren't. In 1965, the American Football League scheduled its annual All-Star game for New Orleans. African-American players were assured by city promoters that their race wouldn't be a problem, even though the Civil Rights Act was less than a year old and the nation was still in the grips of domestic Apartheid. Unsurprisingly, those assurances proved hollow. When black AFL players and their families arrived at the city's airport, they reportedly were left stranded for hours. Some taxis refused to give them service; other cabs agreed to give them rides, then dropped them miles from their destinations. Players were turned away at restaurants and nightclubs. Even Bourbon Street -- anything goes, party time Bourbon Street! -- proved hostile.
Eventually, the 21 African-Americans scheduled to play in the game met at a hotel. They shared their experiences. Talked things through. Pissed off and fed up, they voted to sit out the game so long as it was played in New Orleans. They did not need the prodding of a strongly-worded letter. The vote forced AFL commissioner Joe Foss to move the game to Houston and subsequently inspired the Olympic Project for Human Rights, which in turn lead to Tommie Smith and John Carlos' famous closed-fist medal stand protest at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.
Of course, that was then.
In the here and now, Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman has criticized Washington's nickname. Retired lineman Jason Taylor has called it "offensive." Former Washington linebacker London Fletcher has said the name makes him feel "a little bit uneasy." On Thursday, former Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe wrote on Twitter that he wouldn't play for Washington because of its nickname. In January, current Washington cornerback DeAngelo Hall told Fox Sports that the name "probably"should change, then walked back his milquetoast remarks by stating that it wasn't up to him to say what's right.
Beyond that? Crickets.
During a recent interview with Pro Football Talk Live, NFL Players Association president Eric Winston said that while he supported additional conversation about Washington's team name, the union was not "going to get in the middle" of any debate over it. Previous union president Domonique Foxworth -- who recently put together a panel of players to talk about race at Harvard University -- has been silent on the matter. Washington linebackers Ryan Kerrigan and Brian Orakpo both Tweeted support of a letter from team president Bruce Allen to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid defending the name. Meanwhile, NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith -- an oft-outspoken former trial lawyer and federal prosecutor who previously declined to take a public position on the name beyond endorsing "broad discussion" -- responded to the new letter by issuing a statement to The Washington Post describing the nickname as racially insensitive.
Neither Smith nor the union called for any action by Washington or the NFL. Nor did they threaten to take action if nothing was done.
"I have conveyed my thoughts on this issue both to Roger and to the team," Smith wrote to the Post. "They understand our position and I believe that those conversations are most effective when they can remain private. As I have stated publicly, though, I do not believe anyone should inflict pain, embarrass or insult, especially given the racial insensitivity of the term 'Redskin.' As you know, I grew up here and like all Washingtonians I became a fan of this team. The beauty of sports and of the Washington football franchise is that it will always have the ability to bring this community together, regardless of what decision is made about the team name."
SCENE: The National Mall, Washington, D.C., 1963
Martin Luther King: I have a dream … that I have conveyed to both the president and Congress. They understand my dream and I believe that those conversations are most effective when they can remain private. Enjoy the monuments, everyone!
In fairness to Washington team name defenders like Kerrigan and debate-dodging do-nothings such as DeMaurice Smith, I get the reluctance -- the refusal, really -- to call out "Redskins" for the slur it is. Change is always hard. And scary. It's harder and scarier when it involves telling the people who sign your paychecks what to do, or else. As an NFL player agent told the Post, "There might be a few players willing to speak out. But for the most part, that will be very difficult to get players to engage on a topic like that. You're asking players to take a stand against their employer, essentially. The NFL has taken the Redskins' side on this. That's a lot to ask.
Also, change costs money.
Moreover, I can understand players who don't think the nickname is a big deal. That it isn't a moral issue. That it isn't fundamentally similar to Sterling's reprehensible, retrograde view of African-Americans. After all, the vast majority of people who support "Redskins" -- or are simply indifferent to it -- don't take that stance out of conscious prejudice or intentional animosity toward Native Americans. They don't consider themselves racists. They wouldn't refuse to serve a Native American at a lunch counter or dive into a shared public swimming pool. If anything, they likely feel offended -- and rather defensive -- when they're told that there's something suspect about the nickname, and by extension, about their attitude toward it.
In fact, when players suit up in Redskins gear and fans drive around Washington with team flags flying from their cars, I'm pretty confident that they're not thinking about broken treaties, smallpox, the Trail of Tears, ethnic cleansing, racial stereotypes, our nation's long, shameful history of white supremacy, what it's like to grow up on a reservation. And I'm sure they're not thinking about the nickname the way the new letter to players describes it:
… the word screamed at Native Americans as they were dragged at gunpoint off their lands, it is the word for the object needed to collect a bounty -- literally "red skins" -- ripped from dead Native American bodies and exchanged for money as proof of kill, and it is a term that still denigrates Native Americans today. The name does not honor people of color, instead it seeks to conceal a horrible segment of American history and the countless atrocities suffered by Native Americans …
To the contrary, I'm positive that the only thing on the minds of players and fans is football. And beer, maybe, because of television ads and stadium signage. But mostly football. A television entertainment product in which the term "Redskins" largely has been recontextualized to have as much meaning as "Phillies" and "CyberRays." As such, when people like Allen and -- gack -- Washington owner Dan Snyder insist that they don't mean to offend anyone, I believe them. When fans and players echo that sentiment, I believe them, too. No one means any offense.
Still, intention doesn't make things better.
Taylor and half of the Senate are right: "Redskins" is an ethnic slur. How so? Here's a quick, easy test for determining the offensiveness of a particular racial term: If you used it to someone's face, could you reasonably expect a retaliatory punch in the nose? Yes? Then the term stinks. And stinks even more as the name of a professional sports franchise, particularly when the commissioner of the sport in question welcomes the prospect of an openly gay player by proclaiming his league's belief in diversity.
(Note: Goodell and Snyder both have been asked if they would feel comfortable calling a Native American "Redskin." Both men have declined to answer the question. What else do you need to know?)
Look, failing to speak out against Washington's nickname doesn't make players and their union leaders a bunch of bigots. But it does make them selfish. Lacking in empathy. A bit cowardly, and more than a bit childish. At best, it means they're valuing their own blissful indifference over the genuine pain of others; at worst, it means they're insisting to those same others that they shouldn't feel hurt in the first place.
Try this: Use the word cunt around a woman. Or chink around an Asian person. Or nigger around an African-American. When they get upset, tell them to get over it. To stop being so sensitive. Tell them that you didn't intend any offense. That it wasn't personal. That as far as you're concerned, it's a term of honor. Tell 'em that you know how they should feel, at least better than they do.
See how far you get.
Offense is offense. Pretending otherwise is callous. Unless you're a sociopath or an emotionally stunted teenager, being callous to other human beings is nothing to take stubborn pride in. Calling a team "Washington Redskins" is akin to calling a team "San Francisco Faggots" or "San Antonio Wetbacks," even if most NFL players aren't personally hurt -- and even if the people most likely to be hurt are largely out of sight and mind.
You know what's ironic? Almost crazy? Individuals such as Foxworth and DeMaurice Smith ought to get this. Because they do seem to get it, unless it involves Native Americans. According to the New York Times, the Harvard-educated Foxworth built a small civil rights museum in the basement of his Maryland home, a shrine that reportedly includes a Tommie Smith artifact. Earlier this year, DeMaurice Smith called a group of anonymous NFL executives who criticized Sam as "gutless"; in 2013, he published an op-ed column in the Washington Blade proudly touting the addition of sexual orientation anti-discrimination clause to the league's Collective Bargaining Agreement, at one point invoking his own father's courage for attending the 1963 March on Washington, a "daring public display that was opposed by several public officials."
Surely both men grasp the importance of standing up for what's right, regardless of risk. Surely they appreciate history -- like the fact that the nickname "Redskins" was not, as the franchise claims, chosen to honor the team's possibly-not-actually-Native-American coach, William "Lone Star" Dietz, but instead selected so owner George Preston Marshall could continue to use a previous Native American logo. Or the fact that Marshall was a notorious racist who refused to integrate his squad until threatened by the federal government in 1961, making Washington the last NFL team with an all-white roster. Or the fact that the New York Times in 1912 referred to Native American athletic legend Jim Thorpe -- a man who did more for professional football than anyone currently alive -- as a "Redskin from Carlisle [Indian School]," something the newspaper would never, ever do today. Surely Smith and Foxworth can choose to lead -- as can Winston, for that matter -- and surely their NFL player constituents can read, noting that the new letter regarding the Washington team name is not only signed by many Native American groups, but also by the NAACP, the Anti-Defamation League, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the National Fair Housing Alliance.
Remember that 1965 AFL boycott of New Orleans? It didn't just involve African-Americans like the late, great Cookie Gilchrist. White players such as Hall of Famer Ron Mix and future presidential candidate Jack Kemp also joined in -- not because they faced personal discrimination, but because they understood that racial prejudice ultimately injures everyone in society, regardless of ethnicity, and if one group feels injured, perhaps all of us should. An injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
You know who wrote that? Martin Luther King, Jr. A man DeMaurice Smith referenced when giving a speech to high school students about having "the courage to take steps for what is right."
Back to Sterling. Under considerable player pressure, NBA commissioner Adam Silver banned the Clippers owner for life and is attempting to remove him from the league. Given Sterling's long, unsavory racial history, some argued that the move was overdue -- that he was enabled for far too long, by fellow owners and players alike. Which is true. Yet when push came to shove, when the pain caused by Sterling couldn't be equivocated away, the players put their legs into it. This much, and no more.
Shortly thereafter, Smith published a congratulatory tweet: Credit to NBA players, the NBA community and Adam Silver for coming together and acting quickly. No room for racists in sport. Meanwhile, Sherman was asked by Time magazine if he thought the NFL would ever react the same way to a football owner making similar comments. "No, I don't," he said. "Because we have an NFL team called the Redskins. I don't think the NFL really is as concerned as they show. The NFL is more of a bottom line league. If it doesn't affect their bottom line, they're not as concerned." Is Sherman right? Does the same indictment apply to its players and their leaders? Time to find out. As of this week, both Smith and the men he represents have been put on notice. Forget broad discussion. Come together. Act quickly. No room for racism in sports. How many strongly worded letters do NFL players need to receive?