My best friends when I was a kid were twins who lived next door.
The best thing in the world was watching NFL games in their family room every Sunday.
Our ferocious attention on the game was diverted only by the big bowl of M&M’s in the middle of the floor, and halftime, when we’d go outside and play football until the second half started.
I had my favorite team, and they had theirs, the team from Washington in the burgundy-and-gold.
I had a flourescent orange Larry Csonka shirt; they named their parakeet Charley, after wide receiver Charley Taylor.
Back then, over 40 years ago, it never occurred to us kids that anyone could be hurt by the nickname of their team, that it was in fact an ethnic slur that perpetuated negative stereotypes and dehumanized a race of people out there whom we’d never met nor heard from.
To us, the logo was simply a harmless visual cue. A brand.
And it’s still that for many people, but not for many others. Including me.
The NFL season begins in earnest today amid a groundswell of support pushing Washington owner Daniel Snyder to change the nickname and logo out of respect and decency toward Native Americans.
They face an ongoing burden to maintain dignity and a cultural and racial identity that is diluted by time and stigmatized by public acceptance of team nicknames like Washington’s.
How big is the movement?
How stubborn is Snyder?
The answer to the first question is fluid, upward.
The answer to the second is static, for now, although there are developments that could prompt him to provide the result people are looking for, if not for the right reason.
I wrote a column a few weeks ago about Johnny Manziel and made two mentions of the team he happened to face that Monday night, Washington, without using the nickname. It was a conscious choice, but also partly reflexive, and one that I’m now hardwired to keep making.
That reflex came from growing persuasion that boycotting the nickname was the right thing to do. It may not have been something I thought about much 10 years ago and certainly not when we were rolling around on my neighbors’ front lawn way back when, but it is now.
The voices are powerful and gaining traction across the landscape of public discourse.
Last October, the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), a non-profit advocacy organization that was founded in 1944 and represents the 566 federally recognized Indian Nations, released a 29-page examination of the harm done by sports mascots to Native Americans.
There’s a separate chapter devoted to Snyder’s football team detailing efforts to get Washington to change its name as far back as 1968, the year after the team had registered its trademark to preserve the legacy of owner George Preston Marshall, widely known to have supported racist policies.
In June, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office canceled trademarks registered between 1967-90 because it deemed the name and logo disparaging.
In the meantime, some high-profile media stars and publications are boycotting the nickname, including Peter King of Sports Illustrated and Greg Gumbel of CBS, the Kansas City Star, San Francisco Chronicle, Seattle Times and, as of Wednesday, the New York Daily News.
CBS studio host James Brown said he won’t use the term on-air and implored the team to “do the right thing” and change the nickname, and recently Phil Simms (CBS), Tony Dungy (NBC) and Tom Jackson (ESPN) said they’d try not to use it.
In May, 50 U.S. senators sent a letter to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell urging him to put pressure on Snyder to change the name.
Pushback has come from the general public, media and, most vociferously, Snyder, who last year told USA Today that he would never change it, “It’s that simple. NEVER — you can use caps.”
Snyder claims it’s about a tradition of honor and respect, but if the people it’s supposed to honor and respect don’t take it that way, what’s the point?
Another position you hear a lot is “Who cares? What difference does it make? Is it really that big of a deal?”
My mind immediately translates that to “I … don’t care. It doesn’t make any difference … to me. It isn’t a big deal … to me.”
But it is a big enough deal to enough people, and always has been, perhaps more now because it’s so blithely dismissed as unworthy of attention.
The 2013 NCAI report cites a 2004 study by Dr. Stephanie Fryberg of Stanford University, herself a member of the Tulalip Tribes in Washington state, that concludes that stereotypical Native American sports mascots have negative psychological effects on Native Americans, promote a feeling of superiority among European Americans and deteriorate race relations.
A population that already suffers inordinate rates of suicide and hate crimes against it isn’t being helped any by negative stereotypical images used for profit by a pro football team. I’m not saying that anybody ever committed suicide because of a logo, but these things add up to have a pervasive impact on a society.
Snyder, the billionaire with a team valued by Forbes.com to be $2.4 billion, is doing his best to play the victim, one of my favorite games, and it never ceases to amaze me to see people telling everyone to just shut up and lay off the guy who has all the marbles.
Watch, though. He’ll come around.
In a CNN.com story this week, SportsSourceOne said Washington merchandise sales were off 35 percent for the last quarter despite the overall NFL sales being up 3 percent. This, and a possible hit in sponsorship dollars, could become an issue with Snyder’s currently mum NFL bretheren who have a revenue-sharing agreement for that stuff.
There are also some theories out there that, since Snyder wants a new stadium, he could leverage the controversy to get a sweetheart deal, if he agrees to change the nickname.
Until that happens, I won’t use it in print for the simple reason that I’m convinced it’s the right thing to do. That’s plenty enough for me.
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