So on Wednesday, former FCC officials and concerned parties asked Snyder to change the name of our beloved football team — so that broadcasters no longer would have to describe it using a name they would never use in any other context.
Cultural standards evolve. The meaning of the public interest also, of course, evolves. Almost all of us adults who grew up as Washington football fans used, without thinking, a name for the hometown team that is now clearly inappropriate. Whatever we might have said decades ago, none of us now would call a Native American by the epithet used to describe Snyder’s team. In the same way, views on interracial marriage and gay marriage have changed; this process of change occurs topic by topic, name by name. It is one of the glories of America that we move to higher levels of awareness. Washingtonians would hold our heroes Sonny, Sam, Art, Darrell and the rest even more dear in our memories if we did not have to link them to an offensive name.
Because diction reflects and shapes standards, the FCC has long tried to encourage broadcasters to be aware of language used over the air. In some cases, following the dictates of Congress, the FCC has levied fines. As chairman of the FCC, I prosecuted a case against Howard Stern for violating indecency rules. Such cases have often led to subtle debates in appellate courts about the application of the First Amendment.
But regardless of how a court would rule on a fine for use of a racial epithet, the FCC clearly has the authority to investigate whether broadcasters’ use of derogatory names to describe sports teams and players comports with the public interest.
That said, it should not be necessary for Native Americans or others to petition the FCC to look into the appropriateness of broadcasting racially derogatory names. It should not be necessary for the FCC to consider fining broadcasters for using racially derogatory names for football teams, for at least two reasons.
First, in the long and entertaining history of sports broadcasting, networks and stations have usually been leaders in adopting evolving standards of respect for other people. Examples abound: Howard Cosell was criticized for using a racially derogatory description of Alvin Garrett, a wide receiver for the Washington football club, during a 1983 “Monday Night Football” telecast, and he stopped covering football after that season. CBS fired Jimmy “the Greek” Snyder in 1988 for making racially derogatory remarks. ESPN — a cable channel, not a broadcasting channel — apologized for remarks that sportscaster Brent Musburger made in January about the girlfriend of the University of Alabama’s quarterback.
If broadcasters follow their own tradition, they will insist that Snyder no longer put them in the intolerable position of using a derogatory term to describe his team. So, too, should the FCC applaud broadcasters for pursuing the name change.
Second, Snyder has an irresistible opportunity to lead the nation in taking another step on the long road toward multiethnic harmony and tolerance. If he emulates Abe Pollin, the late owner of the Washington basketball team who conducted an open process to change the name of his franchise to Wizards (from the no-longer-appropriate Bullets), Snyder can gain even more credit for the leadership he has shown in reviving the fortunes of our beloved football team.