Is there really a difference between Donald Sterling and the Redskins?

It's time for the NFL to take action against the Washington Redskins.

Internet Culture

Published May 26, 2014   Updated May 31, 2021, 6:17 am CDT

BY JOANNA SCHROEDER

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Which person is more racist? The man who says racist things (and has a documented history of discrimination) or the man who makes hundreds of millions of dollars off the exploitation of racist imagery?

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I guess it really doesn’t matter, does it? I mean, whether you’re doing racist things or perpetuating racism, you’re still a jerk. But it turns out that in pro sports, some leagues take racism more seriously than others.

When Clippers owner Donald Sterling was recorded telling his girlfriend not to be photographed with black people or bring black people (including Magic Johnson) to his games, he was banned from all NBA games permanently by the NBA’s new commissioner, Adam Silver. Within seconds of the announcement, Twitter lit up with praise for the commissioner’s decision. This was what people wanted, what we so desperately needed, and what we never thought we’d get: A real punishment doled out to a rich, powerful racist.

Sure, it’s hard to hurt a billionaire with a fine of a few million bucks, but a lifetime ban is a satisfying emotional victory and a glimmer of hope that systematic racism in the league can continue to be addressed.

Quickly the conversation turned to another pressing story of racism in professional sports: That of Dan Snyder’s insistence that he will never change the name of the team he owns, the Washington Redskins. It doesn’t matter to him that Native leaders have been working to have the name changed since the 1970s. It doesn’t matter to him that the President of the United States said that if he were the owner of the team, he would change the name. It doesn’t matter that the National Congress of American Indians has published information about the ways in which Native iconography, caricatures and mascotry harm Native communities.

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With the lifetime ban of a racist team owner in the NBA, many activists started to feel like there was hope for the Redskins. If Dan Snyder would never agree to change his team’s name, perhaps the NFL would take the NBA’s lead and start putting pressure on Snyder to make a change.

Activist Jennie Stockle, who is of Cherokee-Creek background, told me, “When the NBA banned Sterling, I had such longing in my heart. I knew that if the NBA could take sudden and drastic actions against long-time racism that the NFL could too. No more excuses for the NFL’s lack of action.”

One group, Eradicating Offensive Native Mascotry, has been working toward the eradication of offensive native mascotry and has made significant progress toward raising awareness of the harm caused by these names and mascots.

Jacqueline Keeler of EONM explains the necessity of newsworthy events like the Donald Sterling lifetime ban in drawing awareness to the issues surrounding offensive native mascots.

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Eradicating Offensive Native Mascotry has multiple campaigns and have had active ones addressing the KC Chiefs (during the racist Sonic Drive-In sign), the FSU Seminoles (during Rose Bowl, see hashtag #RedfaceDisgrace) and in baseball we have had the #Dechief Nike campaign. It is a big field to cover, but every time we have a galvanizing newsworthy opportunity, we are on it.

But based upon the actions of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, change is a long way off. Goodell wrote a letter to Congress in 2013 in which he explained that the name “Redskin” is a positive one, intended to honor Native populations. He has stood firm on this position, though his letter did note that over time, opinions of the name may change.

After Donald Sterling was banned from the NBA, Rodger Goodell took a moment to praise Adam Silver for his swift and decisive penalty, without even a hint of irony, “I think they made the right decision. I salute Adam Silver for being decisive. He made the right statement and he’s doing the right things.”

But will Goodell do the right thing, too? Will he stand up to Dan Snyder the way Adam Silver stood up to Roger Sterling?

This month, fifty members of Congress signed a letter to Commissioner Goodell urging him to press for a name change in Washington. Jonathan Topaz at Politico analyzed the letter, which argued that the Redskins and the NFL are on the “wrong side of history.”

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The N.F.L. can no longer ignore this and perpetuate the use of this name as anything but what it is: a racial slur…The despicable comments made by Mr. Sterling have opened up a national conversation about race relations. We believe this conversation is an opportunity for the NFL to take action to remove the racial slur from the name of one of its marquee franchises.

The NFL replied that they would continue to stand by Snyder and the name of his team.

It is important to note that Roger Goodell doesn’t exactly have any motivation to stand up to a racist team owner, considering the fact that he was elected by the owners of the NFL’s teams. It’s also important to note that this salary yielded Goodell $35.1 million dollars, plus $9.1 million of deferred pay in 2013 alone—we know this because the NFL is a non-profit organization, and salaries must, therefore, be public information.

So what would motivate Goodell to stand up for what is ethically and morally correct? It would have to be pressure from other team owners.  

But the EONM holds out hope that change is in the near future for those who are against the use and abuse of Native names and imagery:

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We at EONM feel that the NBA’s just treatment of LA Clippers owner, Donald Sterling, has spurred half of the Senators in the United States and many in America to finally recognize the offensive racial slur that we have fought to eradicate for so long. It is the best time to recognize and move the nation forward in pushing the NFL’s failure to address issues and right the wrongness of the ‘Redskins’ mascot.

As more and more players, fans, politicians, and Native Leaders speak up against the name, there will come a time when Goodell is forced to recognize that people’s views are changing. The time is now for other NFL team owners to stand up against Dan Snyder and to urge Roger Goodell to force a change upon the team with the racist name.

Roger Goodell has an opportunity to join Adam Silver in history books. He has the opportunity to be remembered for more than his incomprehensibly huge salary. He’s already led the way with his efforts toward reducing brain trauma to players and cracking down on “injury bounties” (though both causes have a long, long way to go), and many have faith that he can do the same here by forcing Dan Snyder to change the name of his team.

If Goodell chooses to put his neck on the line in order to help eradicate racism in the NFL, he may have the opportunity to be remembered as a hero. But being a hero is never easy, and it certainly won’t be this time.

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Joanna Schroeder serves as executive editor of the Good Men Project and is a freelance writer whose work has appeared on sites like xoJane, hlntv.com, and the Huffington Post. 

Photo via Almond Butterscotch/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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*First Published: May 26, 2014, 11:30 am CDT