Profile in Gutlessness

A few years ago I was watching a boxing match on television that featured a black fighter whom I’ll call “Sam Smith,” squaring off against a white fighter whom I’ll call “ Joe Jones.” Although I’ve long since forgotten the boxers’ names, their weight class, and who won the fight, I do remember wishing I had a 10-pound barbell to throw at the TV screen.

Typically, boxers wear trunks that are readily distinguishable from each other. For whatever reason, that wasn’t the case in this match; both fighters were wearing shiny black trunks. Smith’s trunks had a narrow, light blue vertical stripe, and Jones’ trunks featured a wide, dark blue stripe—almost a Navy blue, making it nearly impossible to see against the dark field.

During the bout, the announcer said, “If you’re just joining us, Smith is wearing black trunks with a light blue stripe, and Jones is wearing black trunks with a dark blue stripe.” Those were his exact words. Presumably, because he feared being reprimanded by his superiors or being reviled by the public, he couldn’t bring himself to identify Smith and Jones by their skin color or race.

Switching venues, let’s imagine a group of men (all serious boxing fans) watching the same fight in somebody’s living room—drinking V-8 juice, eating hummus, and boisterously cheering for one fighter or the other. A late arrival (a fellow who doesn’t follow the sport) joins the group and casually asks who’s fighting. One of the men quickly responds, “Sam Smith and Joe Jones.”

If this late arrival were to ask who was who, no one would dream of answering, “Smith is wearing black trunks with a light blue stripe, and Jones is wearing black trunks with a dark blue stripe.” Nobody would say that. Instead, they would answer with either, “Smith is the black guy,” or “Jones is the white guy.” The announcer’s reluctance to acknowledge a boxer’s race is a perfect example of political correctness taken to an absurd extreme.

Which brings us to the Washington Redskins of the NFL, which, alas, is a whole other deal. Anyone who thinks this is a case of “PC going too far” is missing the point. For decades, there have been protests by Indigenous peoples arguing that “Redskins” is pejorative and anachronistic term, one that has no place in a professional sports league, particularly for a team located in the nation’s capital.

The protests have been greeted with everything from genteel excuses to lip service to outright hostility. Even people who believe that Indigenous peoples may have a legitimate beef, tend to dismiss their complaints as quibbling or “making a mountain out of a molehill.” You hear people say, “Don’t these tribes have enough to worry about? They gotta protest trivial stuff like this?”

But the latest round of protests got the attention of the U.S. Congress. In early May, the Congressional Native American Caucus, led by co-chair Betty McCollum (D-Minn), wrote a letter to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, imploring him to do what should have been done decades ago—force Washington ownership to change its team name. The term “Redskins” is derogatory, racist, and offensive. There are a hundred other names they can choose from. Pick one.

On June 5, Roger Goodell issued his answer. His disrespectful reply was, more or less, “No way, Tonto.” Goodell, son of the late Charles Goodell, a former conservative Republican senator from New York, made it very clear that he had no intention of raising the ire of NFL team owners.

After all, because the NFL commissioner serves at the pleasure of the owners, he can be replaced with relative ease. They voted him in, they can vote him out. And being the NFL commissioner is one very cushy, well-compensated job. In 2011, Goodell earned $29.5 million, most of it in performance bonuses.

Once again Indigenous peoples are rebuffed, and once again they’re rebuffed by wealthy white men. These protesters weren’t asking for money or land or special privileges. They were simply requesting not to be humiliated on the national stage. But because Roger Goodell would rather piss off some dispossessed peoples than rile his masters, their request was denied. Well done, Roger. Another bonus awaits.

David Macaray is a playwright and author, whose latest book is How to Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows: Weird Adventures in India: Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims When the Peace Corps was New. Everything you ever wanted to know about India but were afraid to ask. He can be reached at: Read other articles by David.