Sterling Ban Provides Perfect Chance for Goodell to Act on Snyder Controversy

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Sterling Ban Provides Perfect Chance for Goodell to Act on Snyder Controversy
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"Not all Native Americans are offended by the Washington team name and logo."

"There's a long, proud tradition of good football being played under that banner; it means a lot to a lot of people."

"Nobody can agree on a new identity, and what would be done about the fight song?"

"There are other team names and logos that are questionable, too; are we going to change all of them?"

"Dan Snyder owns the team, he can do what he wants with it."

As NBA Commissioner Adam Silver is proving, none of these talking points would stop NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell from doing the right thing—if he wanted to.

When Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling made a string of bizarre, racist statements (first privately, then publicly), Silver took definitive action: He banned Sterling from the NBA for life, and began proceedings to divest Sterling of his franchise.

Kathy Willens/Associated Press

"We know we're doing the right thing," Silver said at a press conference, per Dave McMenamin of ESPN Los Angeles, "and I know I have the owners behind me."

There will be a lot of legal wrangling to get from this decision to the ultimate result; Sterling is notoriously litigious, and this action is unprecedented in major American sport. Yet, Silver is starting from the right place: the decision. There's no room in the NBA for backwards, hateful attitudes, no matter how old or rich or important you are.

There shouldn't be any room in the NFL for such things, either.

The same constitutional bylaws and articles that give Silver the power to wrest the Clippers franchise away from Sterling exist in the NFL constitution, too.

Per Article VIII, section 13(A) and 13(B), the commissioner has broad powers to punish an owner found guilty of conduct detrimental to the NFL—and in cases where he finds the appropriate punishment greater than what he can unilaterally impose, he can recommend extreme penalties to the owners' executive committee. One of the possible punishments the bylaws spell out is forcing a league member to sell his or her interest in the team within 120 days.

If Roger Goodell wants to secure his legacy as a powerful, transformative figure in NFL history, he needs to get on the right side of history—and get the owners to fall in behind him.

After appointing Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court in 1967, making him the first African-American justice, President Lyndon B. Johnson told the press, "I believe it is the right thing to do," and "the right time to do it," according to The American Presidency Project.

It might seem overwrought to compare changing a sports team's name to a watershed moment in the history of American government civil rights. But just six years before, Johnson's predecessor John F. Kennedy's administration literally ordered Washington's football team to integrate by drafting an African-American player. 

Here's where the "Dan Snyder owns the team, and he can do whatever he wants with it" argument falls down.

BHR/Associated Press

For decades, George Preston Marshall owned the team. He changed the name from "Braves" to a slur. He allegedly led his fellow owners to ban black players from the NFL, per Nichols College history professor Thomas G. Smith. Marshall's wife penned the offensive original lyrics to the team's fight song; he rewrote them to be more exclusionary. As social pressure to integrate mounted, Marshall publicly spouted off.

"We'll start signing Negroes when the Harlem Globetrotters start signing whites," Marshall said, quoted here by Sports Illustrated. It wasn't until he built a new stadium on federal land, and Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall forced the team to comply with federal non-discrimination policies, that Marshall finally backed down.

It's easy to see the parallels here. Snyder has been increasingly defiant about defending his team's racist nickname, in words and actions. Most recently, he started an "Original Americans Foundation" distributing aid to reservations. The founding and initial work of OAF, an unfortunate acronym, hasn't impressed existing Native American groups like the National Congress of American Indians.

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"Dan Snyder lives in a world where he can get his way throwing his money around," the NCAI said in a statement quoted by Erik Brady of USA Today. "The reality is that he is stubbornly defending the use of a slur."

In a radio interview quoted by The Associated Press, Goodell said "we need to be listening" to fans offended by the name. Yet, he continues to defer to Snyder on the issue. Goodell has deftly found the middle ground on a lot of very tricky issues during his tenure as commissioner—but by trying to listen to everyone, he's satisfying no one.

Now that Silver has shown what real leadership looks like, it's time for Goodell to show his mettle.

"Will there be bumps in the road? Presumably yes," Silver said. "But this will all get worked out. I know we're pursuing the right course here and doing the right thing."

Changing the identity of the NFL team in Washington is the right thing to do, and it's long since been the right time to do it.

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