“The trouble is that once you see it, you can’t unsee it. And once you’ve seen it, keeping quiet, saying nothing, becomes as political an act as speaking out. There’s no innocence. Either way, you’re accountable.”—Arundhati Roy
We don’t normally put “ESPN broadcaster” and “civil resistance” in the same sentence, but that is exactly what is happening at the self-proclaimed World Wide Leader in Sports. A group of high-profile broadcasters and reporters are saying that they will heed the requests of Native American tribal councils over the dictates of the National Football League and refuse to say the racial slur that brands the Washington football team.
Now we have ESPN’s Tom Jackson, Lindsay Czarniak, Keith Olbermann, Lisa Salters and even Mike Tirico, the play-by-play voice of its top-rated Monday Night Football, who have said that they either will not use the name or, in Tirico’s case, will use it as little as possible. (Czarniak, who comes from the DMV and was a local sportscaster, is a particularly powerful name on this list. As she said to Sports Illustrated’s Richard Deitch, “I prefer not to use the name. If it is offensive to someone and if we know that, that’s all we need to know.”) To this I would add what may be the best article I have ever read about the need to change the name by veteran sportswriter Steve Wulf, which just happened to appear on ESPN.com.
Another act of quiet civil resistance is seen in what has happened to the franchise’s merchandise revenue. The months leading up to the NFL season usually mean a spike in sales in their assorted brands. The league as a whole saw a modest 3 percent rise in this revenue during the last financial quarter. Not great, but hardly a crisis. Washington’s sales? They plummeted 35 percent. In an NFL that pools its merchandizing money, this could mean pressure on Dan Snyder to change the name from the one group he’s always had in his corner: other owners.
Not surprisingly the person hired to clean up behind team owner Dan Snyder, team spokesperson Tony Wylee, got out his burgundy-and-gold shovel and said it had nothing to do with people’s not wanting to wear something increasingly identified as “racist.” He said to CNN, “Unfortunately, team performance on the field is a major factor in the apparel business, and a 3-13 season doesn’t do much to help sales. However, we are working hard to improve that record and we look forward to the season opener this weekend.”
There are two rather glaring problems with this argument. First of all, the team has been largely terrible for the last twenty-two years, making the playoffs only four times, without its merchandise sales dropping 35 percent. In fact, the brand was so powerful, it was always one of the top sellers in the NFL despite the mediocre on-field product. Second, if the team does “turn it around” and advance deep into the playoffs, it will only bring more publicity, more protest, more pressure and more opportunities for Dan Snyder to be on camera. The bright lights are simply not his friend. In Washington, DC, a football town if there ever was one, not buying the jersey, refusing to fly the flag from your car and basically not being an unpaid advertiser for this brand constitutes an act of civil resistance.
Like many people in this area, I have cheered for this team. I also once had a gig analyzing games as a fill-in anchor on Comcast Sports Net and never gave a great deal of thought or inquiry into the history of the name or how it affects people in the twenty-first century. I started looking into it more after a young girl of Native American ancestry saw the logo on a media folder in my bag and asked me fearfully why “the man’s head had been chopped off.” To paraphrase Arundhati Roy, once you know the history and hear the voices of those who have to live with the way these images define their lives and their place in this country, it is extremely difficult to pretend you haven’t. Or as Cris Collinsworth, the NBC football analyst, said last October, “I have to admit, as I was watching the game Sunday night and I was saying the word Redskins, in my brain it was coming out red skin. And there was something about that that just didn’t feel right.” Dan Snyder is wrong. The truth, despite what he says, is not on his side. Despite his belligerence, he will lose. Because once you see it, you can’t unsee it.