When the news broke that Robert Griffin III had been drafted by the Washington Reds***s, I was elated. My good humor, however, had nothing to do with how many times he might lead his team to victory on the gridiron. He was a first class athlete, a media star and the second overall pick in the 2012 NFL draft. He signed a four year $21-million-dollar contract, $13 million of that guaranteed. He rolled into DC on a tidal wave of positive PR as the new face of this storied franchise. All of this, I knew, brought him serious clout; great power and respect on and off the field. I hoped he was ready to use it.
Like many African-Americans of my generation and before, I have never been a fan of the team. During my youth, it was well known as the last NFL team to integrate its roster. The owner, George Preston Marshall, famously stated, “We’ll start signing Negroes when the Harlem Globetrotters start signing whites.” The team was so resistant to having blacks on the field that in the end, it took the threat of eviction from D.C Stadium by the Secretary of the Interior, Stewart Udall, to force the much needed change. Mostly because of this history, I carried my dislike of the team into adulthood. Many of my football watching brethren have tried over the years to get me to move past this issue, pointing out the fact that the majority of the team was now made up of African-Americans. Point taken, but my concern was never about how many African-Americans were on the team. It was that racism has always been and still is a major part of this team’s identity. In fact, it was stitched into the very fabric of the burgundy and gold. It was in the logo. It was in the very name. Now, it’s in owner Daniel Snyder’s refusal to change that name. And black players, coaches and staff are, in my opinion, complicit in this legacy of bigotry. They are a part of the willful and malicious denial of the fact that they have been helping to build an organization and making themselves rich/wealthy while ignoring the damage being done to an entire race of people.
This is why I’d put such hope in the idea that when confronted by media about the team’s racist name, Reds***s, RG III, who had very little to lose, would stand up and say that the team’s name, logo and mascot should be changed. But he didn’t. He said, “When it comes to those conversations, it’s just not the time.”
When I heard that answer, I was deeply, deeply disappointed. RG III sounded like many white people in the south during the Civil Rights Movement. The ones who kept saying that black people needed slow down, be patient and understand that these things take time. I wanted to send a letter to RG III, inscribed within, a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail.
We must come to see with the distinguished jurist of yesterday that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”
Now, through shameful inaction, a black man with power was a major player in justice delayed. In fact, so were his teammates. In fact, so were all the African-American ticket holders and fans all around the country who constantly found artful ways to deny the fact that the name is demeaning to Native Americans. In fact, so were those who were not friends of the team, yet stood by and watched in silence. That would include me. But this is what I’ve come to learn.
“Native youth experience the highest rates of suicide among young people. With studies showing that negative stereotypes and harmful “Indian” sports mascots are known to play a role in exacerbating racial inequality and perpetuating feelings of inadequacy among Native youth, it is vital that all institutions – including professional sports franchises- re-evaluate their role in capitalizing on these stereotypes.” -Ending the Legacy of Racism in Sports…
Dr. King, Jr. wasn’t just talking about African-Americans when he declared that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
But somehow it’s okay not to care about the plight of the First Americans. We say, well some “Indians” don’t mind. Some like it. Well, some black people didn’t like the Civil Rights Movement. But they couldn’t stop the rising tide of what was right. We didn’t allow inhumanity to win then and we shouldn’t allow it to win now.
Some say, “I’m part Native American and it doesn’t bother me”, ignoring the fact that they’ve lived an entire life as another race with no real desire or ability to see and feel life through the prism of Native people.
We are African-Americans. The descendants of 400 hundred years of slavery and injustice in this land. Almost every day, we are reminded of this fact. And every day, somewhere, we fight back individually and through the organization of groups bent upon securing racial equality for our people. This is an honorable and just fight. We know the pain of justice denied and its ramifications. We know the power of caricature and stereotype to wound and diminish. Truthfully, what people knows better than us? So why do we participate in perpetuating the Jim Crow-ism of another people? Are we now the bigots?
In my opinion, Daniel Snyder is on par with former Alabama Governor George Wallace. And like Wallace, he is standing – blocking the doorway to social justice and with a loathsome passion, he is declaring something akin to Wallace’s “…segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!”
Let’s not stand with Snyder when he says he will never change the team’s name. Let’s stand for a people trying to say treat us with dignity and respect. To the players, I say listen to those who have come before you. Sure they should have said something when they played, but they are speaking now.
“[If] Native Americans feel like Reds***s or the Chiefs or [another] name is offensive to them, then who are we to say to them, ‘No, it’s not?’” – Art Monk
“It deserves and warrants conversation because somebody is saying, ‘Hey, this offends me,’ and then you have a conversation.” – Darrell Green
Years ago, one of my friends asked me why I wanted black men to take a stand and risk their livelihoods. After all, they fought hard to get to the NFL. They could be throwing away the opportunity of a lifetime. Back then, I guessed that we were fresh out of athletes like Muhammad Ali. If I was having the conversation today, I would point to a group of young men at the University of Missouri. In 2015, when racism, sexism and homophobia raised their ugly heads on campus, the school’s football team refused to take the field. Because it was the right thing to do, they were willing to risk the season and in many cases, their future careers. The men who play for Dan Snyder and the fans of his team should do no less.
Dr. King Jr. also said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
I wonder. Do we think he meant that it bends only for us?
The title of this essay is a quote from Maya Angelou.