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There’s No Good Argument for Keeping Racist NFL Team Names

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The following excerpt appears in television writer and producer Michael Schur’s new book, How To Be Perfect: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question, out now. The book is a hilarious and thoughtful guide for how to live a more ethical life.


DANIEL SNYDER BOUGHT the NFL franchise that is now known as the Washington Commanders in 1999, and they have mostly stunk, due in large part to the fact that Snyder is—and I don’t use this term lightly—a doofus. But beyond the on-field failures that have directly resulted from his doofusness, and continuing allegations of outrageous workplace misconduct, the defining issue of his tenure has been the way in which he has fought, tooth and nail, against changing the team’s plainly racist nickname. In 2013, after yet another extremely reasonable call from Native groups to recognize the nickname as offensive, Snyder said this:

We will never change the name of the team. As a lifelong Redskins fan, and [sic] I think that the Redskins fans understand the great tradition and what it’s all about and what it means, so we feel pretty fortunate to be just working on next season. We’ll never change the name. It’s that simple. NEVER—you can use caps.

Several aspects of this statement are offensive to me. Some of them involve his terrible grammar and syntax, but the more important ones relate to his apologia, which amounts to: It’s tradition! It’s the way it’s always been done, so we can’t change it. The amount of time something has been done is not, by itself, a good reason to keep doing it. Taking that stance means flipping the middle finger to the very idea of progress or finding ways to be better people. It means we’re actively not trying to be better, and worse, we’re seeing the not-trying as a virtue. This benefits no one.

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Snyder could change his views, of course; he just didn’t wanna. Now, if he weren’t powerful and influential, that wouldn’t really matter, because he’d just be a crotchety dork in his living room barking at his TV. But since he is powerful and influential, he became a bottleneck for those who found the nickname problematic; his stance created anguish for any Washington fans in favor of a name change, who then had to figure out what they were supposed to do about the tension between their fandom and their belief system.

They love this thing—this team, this uniform, this franchise—and in many cases they love what it represents: bonds between parents and kids, great memories with friends. And yet, for some, the nickname itself also clashes with their understanding of a just and virtuous world, and Snyder is the only guy who can make things better. When he defiantly announced he would never change—because This Is the Way It’s Always Been Done—his problem became their problem. I found a great explanation for why people take this stance from the writer Jordan K. Ngubane, author of An African Explains Apartheid (1963). Here’s what Ngubane writes about the reasons an Afrikaner nationalist might perpetuate Apartheid, even in the face of its inherent moral rot:

He sees it as a way of life, a world outlook by which to create for himself the social order after his design. History to him is a continually unfolding experience whose real validity lies not so much in its being a guide to the future as in being a justification. When pressed to modify it, he is bewildered. In his view, all this is tantamount to saying he should renounce the world he has created for himself.

Saying “this world is problematic” amounts to saying “I, who have helped build this world, am problematic.” For people deeply invested in the way things are, any change would mean confronting decisions they’ve made that created or sustained the troubling reality.

But what does such a stance mean for the rest of us? We don’t have to be Washington football fans to understand the problem here, because again, chances are we all love something that would be easier to love if it would just . . . change, a little. Get with the times. Adapt.

the amount of time something has
 been done is not, by itself, a good 
reason to keep doing it

It might be an older actor whose interviews involve a cringey, retrogressive attitude toward his female costars, or a university that still has a statue of a slave-owning Confederate general in its courtyard, or your aunt Connie, who’s really sweet and sends you a birthday card every year but also has some troubling thoughts about Mexicans that she loudly shares with you every Thanksgiving. When we realize the leopards that cause our moral anguish won’t change their spots, we then have to make our own decision: Do we keep supporting them, or do we cut our emotional and financial ties?

To answer that, we can apply our schools of ethical thought to Snyder’s actions—to see if he has a leg to stand on—and also to our own actions, to see if our support of his team is morally defensible. (For simplicity’s sake, we’ll use Washington’s football team to stand in for all of these “problematic things we love, that have the ability to change.”)

simon & schuster

How to Be Perfect: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question

amazon.com

We begin by using a contractualist argument—we’ll see if Snyder’s stance is one that we could reasonably reject if we were all coming up with rules for a new society. Could we reasonably reject a principle that allows racist characterizations of persecuted people to be used as team mascots? Of course. In fact, if Snyder suggested that rule during one of our contractualist rule-pitching sessions, he’d be roundly laughed at—especially since his defense amounts to: “I’ve been a fan of this team since I was young, and now I own them, so I can do what I want.”

Immanuel Kant and Deontology won’t be any more lenient with him. Snyder’s arguing that he could will into existence a world where once anyone gets enough money or achieves enough influence, he can stop considering the feelings or needs of those less fortunate. That’s the world the pigs create in Animal Farm, and I don’t think George Orwell wrote Animal Farm as like a “how to” guide for running a society.

If we apply Aristotle’s virtue ethics: we’re essentially asking how compassionate we should be when it comes to issues that cause people anguish or pain. Being excessively compassionate might lead to lack of integrity, or backbone, or something—nearly everything in the culture is some kind of iffy, but given that the name of his team creates such extreme and unnecessary anguish, and could be changed so easily, I believe Snyder is deficient in consideration for others.

chances are we all love something that would be 
easier to love if it would just    change, a little 
get with the times adapt

Utilitarianism—which aims simply to maximize pleasure and happiness, and minimize pain—is a little trickier. When Snyder declines to entertain a name change, he might have a consequentialist leg to stand on. It is, I suppose, possible that if he changed the name, the total pain felt by Washington fans who don’t want it to change would be greater than that felt by Indigenous people if he chose to retain it. But are these two pains comparable? Remember, it’s not strictly the number of people who feel pain in each of the two different outcomes—it’s the total amount of pain felt, and the intensity of that pain, and its duration, among other things. For the utilitarian, it’s better to have a hundred people get paper cuts than one person take a baseball bat to the knee, so there might be significantly more total pain if Snyder keeps the name the same.

washington commanders logo

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But what about the utilitarian argument regarding us, and our fandom? How much “bad” does us continuing to root for the team really create? Some of that depends on what “supporting the team” really means. Do we spend money on tickets and merchandise? Do we publicly tweet or post videos, spreading the racist logo online? Do we wear a hat or jersey out in public where others will see it? It’s likely that if our fandom is relatively private, we’re not creating that much consequentialist “harm.” Either way, we should also just do a gut check here, and ask ourselves if we are okay with supporting a team, in any way, that has a racist nickname.

And look: we might be.

We might mull over all of our options and when we consider the totality of what matters to us, we may just get to a point where we cannot imagine life without Washington football fandom. What the hell do we do then? (Author’s note: You’ll have to read the rest of the book to find out.)

of all the ways we can become better people, 
“dragged kicking and screaming” isn’t ideal, 
but it hammers home the importance
 of simply trying

There’s a postscript to this discussion, of course: the R*dskins did finally change their name. In the summer of 2020, as the entire country wrestled with police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement put racial injustice front and center, Snyder finally decided to join the rest of us here in the twenty-first century and agreed the nickname was no longer appropriate. Of all the ways we can become better people, “dragged kicking and screaming” isn’t ideal, but it hammers home the importance of simply trying. Snyder shouted, only a few years ago, that he would NEVER change the name of his team. But a bunch of people kept trying. They kept lobbying, and lightly shaming him, and making their case. And little by little, the Overton window shifted. Other teams changed their names. Social justice crept forward. And finally, the window’s range included something that was once unthinkable.


This story is being published exclusively on Men’s Health by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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