Mike Carey, longtime NFL referee, avoided Washington’s games because of the name


Referee Mike Carey, foreground, ejects Sean Taylor during a playoff game on Jan. 7, 2006. It was the second-to-last time Carey, who retired and moved to television after last season, worked a Washington game. (Doug Benc/Getty Images)
Mike Wise
Columnist August 20

Mike Carey sat quietly by himself in the CBS NFL game-day studio in Manhattan on Monday. As he had for 19 integrity-driven seasons as one of the league’s most highly respected officials, the network’s recently hired rules analyst blended seamlessly into the background, doing what every good official does:

Be unobtrusive and let the stars shine.

Mike Wise is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. View Archive

So while Phil Simms, Greg Gumbel, James Brown, Lesley Visser, Deion Sanders and more of CBS’s luminaries answered to a cadre of journalists whether they would use the name of Washington’s NFL team on broadcasts, Carey sat still. No one approached. His secret of almost eight years was safe, if for just a few more minutes.

“I’ve called them Washington all my life,” he said, when finally asked. “And I will continue to call them Washington.”

Unbeknownst to that studio full of cameras, media, analysts, play-by-play men and network executives, Carey’s feelings on the issue were established long before CBS sports chairman Sean McManus admirably gave his on-air talent the choice this year during NFL broadcasts of whether to use the team’s name — which in parts of desensitized Washington is akin to “Lions” or “Broncos” yet is a dictionary-defined racial slur, degrading tens of thousands of Native Americans now being spoken for and heard from for the first time in decades.

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has canceled the Washington Redskins’ trademark. Federal trademark law does not permit registration of trademarks that "may disparage" individuals or groups. Here's a look at the Redskins' logo and team imagery throughout the years. (Tom LeGro and Natalie Jennings/The Washington Post)

Told a search of game logs dating back as far as 1999, his fourth year in the league, revealed Carey had not worked a preseason or regular season home or away Washington game since the opening week of the 2006 season, he smiled coyly, like a man whose cover had finally been blown.

Pausing for eight full seconds, he finally spoke:

“The league respectfully honored my request not to officiate Washington,” Carey said. “It happened sometime after I refereed their playoff game in 2006, I think.”

For almost all of the final eight seasons and 146 games of Carey’s career, the first African American referee to work a Super Bowl — the official named with Ed Hochuli as the best in the game in a 2008 ESPN poll of coaches — essentially told his employers his desire for a mutually respectful society was so jeopardized by Washington’s team name that he could not bring himself to officiate the games of owner Daniel Snyder’s team.

“It just became clear to me that to be in the middle of the field, where something disrespectful is happening, was probably not the best thing for me,” Carey said.

Told how uncommon his social stance was for a referee, whose primary professional goal is to be unbiased, Carey shook his head.

“Human beings take social stances,” he said. “And if you’re respectful of all human beings, you have to decide what you’re going to do and why you’re going to do it.”

Carey said he never went to Commissioner Roger Goodell with the request, instead preferring to communicate with the person who makes up the officiating assignments. He refused to reveal who he asked in the league office, adding: “Let’s not put anybody on the spot.”

One fact is clear, though: Carey had been allowed by a compliant and, he says, “very respectful” NFL to take an almost unheard-of social stand — in a profession rooted in its presumed neutrality.

Richard Steele, the former boxing referee who worked some of the biggest world title fights of the past 40 years, may be the only American sports referee to take a similar stand. Steele refused to work fights in South Africa while the apartheid laws were still in place, a personal conviction that inspired Nelson Mandela to present Steele with an award in 1999.

“I did not know about Mike Carey, why he didn’t do Washington games,” John Wooten, chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, said late Tuesday night by telephone from his home in Arlington, Tex. “This shows you the kind of person he is. He is an outstanding man of character.”

Said Carey, “I know that if a team had a derogatory name for African Americans, I would help those who helped extinguish that name. I have quite a few friends who are Native Americans. And even if I didn’t have Native American friends, the name of the team is disrespectful.”

The embarrassingly strident defense by Snyder and the team as the controversy has mushroomed the past 18 months, including the flimsy claim that a lack of consensus in Indian country on whether it is offensive should enable the owner to keep co-opting and misrepresenting a people’s identity.

“The popularity contest is not an issue,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how many people don’t like it. It is disrespectful, and I will not use it.”

Asked to explain his personal journey toward how the name became so toxic for him, Carey said, “Everybody has to look inside themselves and decide what is the right thing for them.

“In America, we’ve learned that respect is the most important thing that you have. I learned it from my parents, my schools, from my faith. And when you learn there’s something that might not be as respectful as you like, when you come to terms with it, you have to do something about it.”

Depending on one’s perspective, Carey not officiating Washington’s games since 2006 — he did officiate their last playoff win in January of that year in Tampa, ejecting Sean Taylor for spitting in the face of Buccaneers running back Michael Pittman — could be taken two ways by the legions of burgundy-and-gold loyalists:

Either a Carey-led officiating crew could blessedly not affect the outcome of a contest in which its crew chief perhaps had an unknown, built-in bias against players in uniforms that had nothing to do with their own choosing. Or, as more sophisticated fans probably realize, one of the fairest, even-keeled referees of the past two decades made a moral decision that often probably resulted in lesser officiating crews working Washington’s games.

Bottom line, Carey working other games instead of Washington’s means the product on the field, however slight, could have been compromised.

Snyder’s product.

“To me, if they let him do that and didn’t tell anyone, the league somewhat did take a stand,” said Vinny Cerrato, the team’s former general manager. “Mike Carey is a great official. If they’re letting their officials have a say whether they work certain games or not and the team isn’t aware, yes, I think it could be a problem.”

Asked whether he had spoken to McManus of CBS about the issue, Carey replied, “No. You’re the only person I’ve ever spoken to about the issue.” (Moments after our interview, Carey gave McManus a head’s up.)

Carey said his family and the members of different crews he has worked with have been supportive of the decision.

He said he now follows the change-the-name movement from afar. Does the team’s hardheaded approach to the concerns of the offended bother him?

“Sometimes evolution is slow for some people,” he said. “But where else in America do you see that, though, the refusal to change? From Stanford on down, most everybody has changed from a derogatory name to one that is acceptable.”

Since 1999, the first year Pro-Football-Reference.com begins recording game logs of officials, Carey officiated seven games involving Washington. The only season he was not assigned to a Washington game before his request was 2003. By contrast, Hochuli’s crew refereed 19 Washington games between 1999 and 2013.

Outside of family, the referees on his crew and his league scheduling contact, he said he never told anyone.

‘There was no reason to tell anyone,” he said. “I made sure I didn’t have anybody else involved.”

Was he worried that the revelation might come out while he was still officiating?

“No, because if it did, it did. It is what it is. I knew going in that this could be a career-limiting move. But you just have stand for what you believe in.”

Asked why he decided to stop officiating Washington games in 2006 and not earlier given he began his NFL career in 1995, Carey replied, “There was an epiphany for me that it was time. I was never comfortable with the name. I’ve never said [the team’s name] in my games. But then I realized it wasn’t an option to be part of them anymore. For me, I just knew. I knew that everybody — everybody — deserves a level of respect.”

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