NBA Finals game become platform for social change

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LeBron James and the Miami Heat succumbed to the greatest shooting performance in NBA Finals history Tuesday – but a football team fared even worse.

Native Americans launched their own offensive during the NBA Finals, airing a damning ad against the racist nickname of Dan Snyder’s Washington NFL team. The commercial, “Proud To Be,” put a human face on people who have long suffered the odious disrespect of the team and its defenders.

The ad’s timing was remarkable – and not simply because it aired during the record breaking game.

The last several months have exposed a sharp contrast between the NBA’s principled and decisive stance against racism and the malevolent apathy of the football league. Even as NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell insisted that a grotesque slur “honors Native Americans,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver imposed a $2.5 million dollar fine and a lifetime ban against a team owner for horrific racist comments voiced off-the-record.  That scandal precipitated a massive drop in ticket sales for the Los Angeles Clippers; meanwhile, the Washington football team remains the league’s most lucrative franchise.

Should we be surprised that Native Americans are reaching out for support from NBA fans?

NBA sets the example

NBA players were supportive as well.

“I don’t mind using the NBA for positive social change,” said Miami forward Shane Battier. “If there are Native American tribes who find that term offensive…I think there should be a move to change it.”

Battier’s comments touched on a frequent defense of the team name: that it’s acceptable since an alleged majority of Native Americans aren’t offended by it.

Of course, that argument doesn’t bother to explain how a majority opinion somehow makes the genuine offense taken by an oppressed racial minority illegitimate.

“If everyone in the Native American world looked at ‘R—-s’ as a sign of respect, I would be OK with it, but if it is slanderous and hurtful for people, it needs to be changed,” Battier said.

Neither do supporters acknowledge that this argument is, at the very most, a defense, and not an affirmative case for keeping a name that everyone agrees offends at least some Native Americans.

Empty excuses

There’s a reason for the impasse: these defenses aren’t meant to withstand scrutiny. They’re ritual pretexts that fans invoke to avoid the kind of introspection that might actually make them feel guilty.

No one, for instance, seriously thinks that the history of a word determines whether it should be considered “offensive” or not. No one thinks that “sinister” is a neutral or benign term simply because it used to mean “left”, or that it’s ok to call gay men a word that used to mean “a bundle of sticks.”

Yet fans of Washington’s football team name continue to crank out absurd etymological arguments, effectively insisting that what the word meant over two hundred years ago should trump what it means right now.

That kind of logic only holds up if you have some ulterior interest in defending Washington’s football mascot. It’s understandable: no one wants to acknowledge that they have been engaging in racist behavior, and lots of fans have nostalgic, sentimental attachments to the team name for completely innocent reasons.

Tuesday’s commercial gave good reasons to abandon that name – it hurts people. But Native Americans are largely preaching to the choir. NBA fans have shown remarkable solidarity in the fight against racism; it’s time for Washington football fans to join them.

Photo credit: @ClevelandFrowns.