The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A tale of two podiums

Charlie Riedel / AP

Thursday night, America was spared the indignity of having to see Roger Goodell proudly recite the name of Washington’s football franchise on national television during its most visible off-season moment:  the NFL Draft. Because the team didn’t have a first round pick, we weren’t privy to a podium moment that would have struck the exact opposite chord to one we witnessed with the NBA a couple weeks ago.

Then, National Basketball Association commissioner Adam Silver stood up, also in New York City, and reprimanded L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling for his remarks that Sterling made about African-Americans attending his basketball games. Race became the primary focus of the debate, because an owner of a team in a majority-black league was apparently disparaging his own product.

Goodell has no such fortitude. In what I’ll call a post-Donald Sterling world, the NFL commish looks particularly gutless by continuing to support Daniel Snyder’s insistence not to change the name of Washington’s football team. And locally, Goodell  has political allies who give him cover.

When Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid compared the situation between Sterling and Snyder, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, of all people, stepped in to reprimand the Nevada senator. Speaking on WTOP last week, McAuliffe said “Governors should not be telling private sector businesses what to do with their businesses.” It’s a stance that the Democrat has held all along.

“As governor, I’m not going to tell Dan Snyder or anybody else what they should do with their business, and I want to congratulate the [team], because I went down to the training practice here in Richmond and it is spectacular,” he said during a campaign debate with Ken Cuccinelli last year. Forgetting about the grotesque coincidence that a team with a racist mascot is holding training camp in the former capital of the Confederacy, it should be noted that McAuliffe’s support isn’t random. The team’s headquarters are in Ashburn and Snyder donated $25,000 to his campaign.

I guess it’s easier to defend a slur when someone’s paying you to do it.

Oneida Nation’s Ray Halbritter was not impressed.  “It is a sad day when a sitting governor of any state in America publicly suggests that it is OK for Native Americans to be called “redskins,” and further, that national political leaders should somehow keep quiet in the face of bigotry,” he said via email. “Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe is wrong: in a democracy, the people’s representatives have not just a right, but a moral obligation to speak out when billionaires like Dan Snyder use their wealth to promote, market and profit off of a dictionary-defined racial slur.”

Over in Maryland, the Democratic gubernatorial candidates are less enthused about the squad’s moniker. But no one is calling for its removal. Once again, the power of the dollar is paramount. The team plays in Prince George’s County, and any newly elected official would probably like to keep it that way. Yet, as The Post’s John Wagner reported, no one defended the name at a debate Wednesday night in College Park.

The three Democrats found common ground on a question about whether the owner of the Washington Redskins should change the team’s name, which Native American groups and others find offensive.
Brown said that he “no longer refer[s] to the Washington football team by their nickname” and that owner “Dan Snyder ought to . . . do the right thing and change the name.”
Gansler said he was “keenly aware” of discrimination and that as “a lifelong Redskins fan,” he’s “sympathetic to those fans who deeply love the name.” But it is a “slur,” he said, and the team should move toward changing it.

What is refreshing in this scenario is that even as the power structures that be continue to support this kind of institutionalized disrespect, many people are beginning to claim their Native American heritage as a matter of public record. According to the Pew Research Center, census data presented at the Population Association of America meeting last week shows that self-identifying as American Indian is gaining popularity.

“A separate paper presented at the conference reported ‘remarkable turnover’ from 2000 to 2010 among those describing themselves as American Indian. Ever since 1960, the number of American Indians has risen more rapidly than could be accounted for by births or immigration,” D’Vera Cohn wrote Monday for PewReasearch.Org.

I highly doubt they were empowered by the Burgundy and Gold to do so. The statistic is a reminder of how disenfranchisement works. People don’t even want to be associated with who they truly are because the basic portrayals of their heritage are harmful. The effects of portrayal are real, not just politicized banter for the purposes of internet anger.

“It is untoward of Daniel Snyder to try to hide behind tradition,” Reid said on the Senate floor last week, not realizing the irony of his statement. “Tradition? That’s what he says in refusing to change the name of the team. Tradition? What tradition? A tradition of racism is all that name leaves in its wake.”

Still, the guys on the right side of history don’t seem to understand how their own privilege affects them, even when the evidence is right in front of them. There are only 3 2 black Senators in the United States and 9 in history. All Reid had to do was look around the room to see how the tradition of racism is the rule, not the exception in almost every aspect of the American pursuit and maintenance of wealth.

Don’t believe me?

Just ask Donald Sterling.