Redskins, Racial Slurs, and Social Justice

During halftime of an NFL game broadcasted on NBC on October 13, sportscaster, Bob Costas, opined that the ownership of the Washington Redskins should change its name.  Following the lead of President Obama, who said that he would change the team’s name if he were the owner, Costas argued that “Redskins” is “an insult, a slur no matter how benign the present-day intent.”

Team owner, Dan Snyder, reacting to the President’s comments, defended the name, appealing to the team’s 81-year old tradition, that the name is employed by the ownership without malice or bigotry, and that a vast majority of Native Americans are not troubled by the name.

This is a very weak argument.

First, because the perception of language can change over time, the fact that most people decades ago thought a word benign does not mean that it is benign today. Take, for example, the word “Negro.” In the 1950s and 1960s it was the dominant and most acceptable term by which all Americans, white and black, referred to African-Americans. Today, it is a subject of parody by black comics seeking laughs. No one in his right mind would use it in ordinary conversation.

Second, the ownership’s purity of heart is not relevant. For sometimes the nicest and kindest people utter inappropriate language. This may relieve them of culpability, but that does not turn their bad words into good words.

Third, the fact that a minority group has grown accustomed to being described by a slur may be evidence of the group having assimilated into its own community understandings of inferiority deleterious to its own good. Some Catholics, for example, mistakenly refer to themselves as “Roman” Catholic, even though the adjective was a pejorative term invented by post-Reformation Anglicans for the purpose of marginalizing Catholicism as just a regional church like the Church of England.

       WWGD? (Geronimo by Edward S. Curtis, 1909)

What precisely makes the term “redskin” a slur? Like “darkie,” “swarthy,” or “yellow,” “redskin” not only comes across as unflattering – in contrast to, let’s say, “crimson complexion” – it does what all short-hand ethnic slang-terms do, it reduces its subjects to a mere physical property that functions as a badge of inferiority. For it sets subjects apart in such a way that suggests they are not really one of us, persons with intrinsic dignity and immeasurable worth that ought not to be judged, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “by the color of their skin. . . [rather than] the content of their character”

“Redskins” is simply not like the Native American names of other sports teams such as “Seminoles,” “Fighting Illini,” or “Utes,” just as “Dago” is not like “Roman,” “Neapolitan,” or “Sicilian.” It’s one thing to be called the “Fighting Irish,” it’s quite another to be called the “Fumblin’ Dublin Micks.”

As should be evident, I am in agreement with both Mr. Costas and the president that Mr. Snyder should change the name of the Redskins. However, where I part ways with them is over whether this is such an egregious form of social injustice perpetuated by the National Football League that in order for it to be remedied it requires precious network airtime and the assistance of the leader of the free world.

What I think is far worse, virtually ignored by everybody, and a clear cut case of a social injustice, is the way in which a sizeable number of professional athletes (both inside and outside of the NFL) conduct their lives, and how the consequences of this conduct subvert the good of innocent third parties.

The number of out-of-wedlock children sired by professional athletes, with women who are not their wives, is legendary. In some cases, they are indeed targets of enterprising groupies who view such acts of illicit begetting as their “meal ticket.” Nevertheless, regardless of who initiates the contact or the motives of those involved, actual children – vulnerable, defenseless, and innocent – come into existence as a result. These children, by nature, are entitled to a mother and a father committed to each other in matrimony, for absent such an arrangement the successful flourishing of these children is significantly compromised.

The network that employs Mr. Costas, NBC, offers up these athletes as quintessential American heroes, gifted and handsomely paid performers, whose unique collection of skills and talents helps the network sell advertising time to multi-billion dollar businesses that produce everything from beer to computer tablets to the latest X-Box.

This, it seems, is why it is much easier for Mr. Costas to complain about the social injustice of a team name than calling out the fatherless-generating “meal tickets” who help pay his generous salary.




Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy & Church-State Studies, Baylor University, and 2016-17 Visiting Professor of Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Among his many books is Taking Rites Seriously: Law, Politics, and the Reasonableness of Faith (Cambridge University Press, 2015).