Ferguson, Missouri, the Washington Redskins and the Out-of-Touch NFL

Stephen SonneveldCorrespondent IIIAugust 20, 2014

From Fox Sports

He came running out to meet the command, holding up his hands and saying Stop! Stop! He spoke in as plain English as I can. He stopped and folded his arms until shot down...

On Aug. 9, 18-year-old Ferguson, Missouri, resident Michael Brown was killed during an altercation with police.

In subsequent days, protests turned to violence as reports indicated Brown was unarmed and shot while his hands were raised in surrender.

On Aug. 19, Fox Sports reported 11 football players from the NFL's Washington D.C. franchise "emerged from the stadium tunnel during pregame introductions Monday night with hands raised and palms forward" to show their solidarity with Ferguson citizens who have adopted the "hands up, don't shoot" sign as part of the protests.

According to the article, "safety Ryan Clark said Brown 'could have been any one of us. That could have been any one of our brothers, our cousins. ... When you get an opportunity to make a statement and be more than a football player, it's good.'"

In past editorials, I've criticized the NFL establishment for its cowardice and hypocrisy in dealing with politically charged issues. Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III has gone on record with The Washington Post saying he wasn't "qualified to speak on that" and, in an interview with 106.7 The Fan (via USA Today), it was "just not the time" to discuss political issues. Such comments and attitudes always seem to indicate the game is more important to the NFL players and management than any outside, real-world issue.

I am heartened to hear Ryan Clark and his teammates not only are tuned in to social issues, but finally willing to use their exposure as football players to "make a statement," namely because they are making their statements while promoting a recognized racist team name that makes minstrel mockery of a race that was subjected to its share of Ferguson outrages. 

For instance, the uncredited quote from the top of the article is from Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee, Dee Brown's seminal book about "the systematic destruction of the American Indian," per the synopsis on the book's Macmillan Publishers page. 

When asked by 106.7 The Fan in June about taking a stand for changing the Redskins' name, Griffin stated (via USA Today), "I understand, trust me, I'm African American, I've grown up being African American my entire life and I understand oppression and all the things that come with it. But for us, like I said, as players, we have to control what we can control right now, and right now that's the football season."

So Griffin understands oppression; it just isn't as important to him as football.

Washington Post columnist Mike Wise said of Griffin's stance, "I just figure that, as a good, decent inhabitant of the planet, he would respect the groundswell of offended people who don't want to cheer for a team that enshrines America's persecution of its indigenous people."

But at least Ryan Clark and Griffin's other African-American teammates are willing to take a stand against oppression, such as the kind displayed in Ferguson, and also the kind described in horrific detail at Sand Creek. 

For those who may argue that Michael Brown's death is a contemporary event not even a month old as of this writing, and that Sand Creek and other massacres happened over a century ago, consider that one of the reasons "redskins" is offensive to Native Americans is because it was a term used during the genocidal collection of Indian scalps. 

Esquire recently unearthed "an excerpt from The Daily Republican newspaper in Winona, Minnesota from Sept. 24, 1863. It reads: The State reward for dead Indians has been increased to $200 for every red-skin sent to Purgatory. This sum is more than the dead bodies of all the Indians east of the Red River are worth." 

It has been over two hundred years since this practice and its racist implications were initiated, but Robert Griffin III, who understands oppression, does not believe this is the right time to talk about changing his racist team, which is a continuation of this oppression. 

Super Bowl-winning coach and current ESPN analyst Mike Ditka was willing to talk about the name-change issue in a recent interview with Mike Richman of RedskinsHistorian.com in so much that he was willing to overlook the atrocities in American history, because the "Redskins are part of American football history" and "it's nothing to do with something that happened lately or something that somebody dreamed up." 

Ryan Clark and his teammates have finally opened the political door on the NFL and the Washington team. I applaud them for showing solidarity with the Ferguson community, but they did so while promoting the racism branded upon their team uniforms and name. 

What statement is truly being made by their action—that oppression against the African-American community is wrong, but continued oppression against Native American communities is acceptable business as usual? 

The USA Today and Washington Post articles that were referenced in this piece want Griffin, the leader of the team on the field, to be a social leader in the tradition of Muhammad Ali, Arthur Ashe and Curt Flood. Griffin doesn't want it, and that is his right. 

But Clark and his teammates have demonstrated that a social conscience does exist in the Washington locker room. The time for a name change is long past overdue. The NFL seemed to play the stall-tactic game to get past the protests last season. They met with Native American leaders while simultaneously developing strategies to deflect name-change issues, according to The Washington Post's Mark Maske and Mike Jones

The NBA forces the sale of a team after an owner makes racist comments, yet the NFL seems to be plotting to keep a racist team name without reprimand.

The community at the University of Minnesota, where the Vikings will play this year, do not want the Washington team to wear their offensive uniforms or parade the racist mascot imagery, and the NFL feeds it the same hypocritical line that it respects people's opinions while dismissing their concerns.

It was only 151 years ago that a Minnesota newspaper called for the collection of "red-skin" scalps. How appropriate that a place of learning is where a fight for Native American rights is originating. People can learn and times can change—except, apparently, in the backward, hypocritical NFL.

If Clark and his teammates were to finally be the ones to refuse to participate in the Native American minstrelsy, they have the opportunity to be what Griffin isn't, and what Ali, Ashe and Flood and others proved, through their social commitment, they were: bigger than the game.