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The NBA Schools the NFL on How to Handle Racism

How professional sports leagues approach racist offenses differently

Recently, the National Basketball Association’s (NBA) commissioner Adam Silver made a swift decision to ban Los Angeles Clippers’ owner Donald Sterling for life, and fined him $2.5 million after he was recorded making racist comments about African-Americans. Just consider for a moment if the NBA had instead stated that it did not consider Sterling’s remarks to be a “real” issue, and that the African-American community has other, “more important” things to worry about. There would have been an uproar, and rightly so. Yet unbelievably, the National Football League (NFL) continues to get away with just that argument, spending billions of dollars marketing and profiting from a racist name and mascot for the Washington, D.C. team that has been deemed offensive by the Native American community and has been shown to cause psychological harm to Native Americans.

The Washington football team has used “R*dskins” as its name since 1933, when George Preston Marshall – a known segregationist and the last NFL owner to integrate black players – named the team. The National Congress of the American Indian (NCAI), the largest, most representative body in the Native American community, has publicly declared that the "R-word is an offensive racial slur and that its use as a professional sports team’s name is unacceptable. The “R” word has been labeled racially derogatory by the U.S. Trademark Office, the United States Commission on Civil Rights, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, National Education Association, the United Nations, the Anti-Defamation League, and politicians across the political spectrum, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.). Most recently a bi-partisan group of New York State lawmakers proposed a resolution calling on "pro sports leagues to stop using racial slurs" particularly citing the Washington football team.

Daniel Snyder, the current owner of the Washington team, wrote a letter last fall to season ticket holders defending the Washington football team’s name and asserting that the Native American Red Cloud School was consulted about and later approved the team’s name. The Red Cloud School has issued a public statement denying any involvement in determining the team name, stating that it also considers the “R” word a demeaning racial slur. More recently, Snyder founded an association to fund Native American causes – called the “Washington R*dskins Original Americans Foundation.” Yet when Snyder’s foundation sponsored a golf tournament to raise money for Native American scholarships, the National Indian Gaming Association, a nonprofit organization representing 184 Native American tribes, pulled out of the event, calling the organization “a blatant attempt to buy out the issue” of the team’s racist name.

Scientific research suggests that the consequences of racism go way beyond political correctness and are significant public health concerns for affected communities. Studies of African-Americans demonstrate that exposure to racist events causes unhealthy physiological responses, such as increased blood pressure. Similarly, tests have shown that Native American mascots for sports teams can cause lower self-esteem and lower mood among Native American adolescents and young adults. These findings support research demonstrating how discrimination – including racial slurs, racial harassment and bullying – predicts increased levels of depression, substance abuse, suicidal thoughts and behavior, increased physical pain and maladaptive health behaviors among Native Americans. As a result of these and other findings, several professional organizations, including the American Psychological Association, the American Sociological Association and the American Counseling Association, have called for banning all Native American mascots in sports.

In contrast to the quick and decisive response of the NBA against racism, the NFL and the Washington team have been ignoring this issue for over 80 years. In their original statement 40 years ago to the Washington team, the NCAI asserted that “the term … has been perpetuated through such media as western movies and television…. to portray a misleading and denigrating image of the Native American.” Yet the team continues to refuse to change its name. Best summarizing the Washington team’s ongoing stance on the issue, Snyder has stated: “We will never change the name of the team…. It’s that simple. NEVER – you can use caps.”

Worse, the Washington organization has suggested that having a mascot that is a dictionary- and government-defined racial slur against which the Native American community has protested for decades is not a “real” issue. Snyder said, “We understand the issues out there, and we’re not an issue…. I think it’s time that people focus on reality.” Similarly, in response to congressional calls to change the Washington team name, Washington team spokesman Tony Wyllie said in a statement, “…don’t they have more important issues to worry about than a football team’s name?” This sentiment has been similarly embraced by the NFL’s commissioner Roger Goodell, who has minimized the issue by saying, “Let’s not forget this is the name of a football team.”

Hundreds of sports teams across the country on the high school and college level have recognized the importance of this issue and stopped using Native American mascots. Yet the NFL and Washington team persist in setting up a demeaning and false dichotomy: either we can focus on racism against Native Americans or we can pay attention to real issues such as poverty and mental health. This viewpoint is ignorant and insulting. No group of people should have to choose among these issues. We can and should tackle all of them. Because, make no mistake, it is a REAL problem when the NFL and Washington team profit by knowingly and deliberately ignoring the ongoing protests of the Native American community and use billions of dollars of marketing on a yearly basis to spread a racial slur that has been deemed offensive and has shown to cause psychological harm to Native Americans.

By promptly removing Donald Sterling and imposing a fine, the NBA has shown us that racism is unacceptable and must be addressed swiftly and decisively. Native Americans are the only group of people in this country that are forced to tolerate a derogatory racial slur as the name of a professional sports team. The NFL and Washington organization must follow the NBA’s example. They must change the team name and mascot and finally set about healing a wound that has been festering for decades.

Ray Halbritter, leader of the Oneida Nation, sums up the situation best in responding to Snyder’s comments: “If he wants to focus on reality, here’s a reality check: the longer he insists on slurring Native Americans, the more damage he will keep doing to Native American communities, and the more he will become synonymous with infamous segregationist George Preston Marshall, who originally gave the team this offensive name.”

Dr. Mike Friedman is a clinical psychologist in Manhattan and a member of EHE International’s Medical Advisory Board. His opinions are his own. Follow Dr. Mike Friedman on Twitter @DrMikeFriedman and EHE @EHEintl.

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