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Using slurs seems a simple issue:  It is morally wrong and offensive.

But to Roger Goodell, the NFL commissioner, “the issue is undeniably complex.”

Goodell wrote those words in a very sophisticated and carefully crafted Feb. 27 letter defending the name of the football team in the nation’s capital. The National Memo has obtained a copy of the letter, which was probably drafted by lawyers. You can read it here.

The team’s name is intended to “honor and respect” the heritage of native peoples, Goodell wrote. Those would be the original inhabitants who, from Columbus forward, the European explorers thought nothing of raping, enslaving, torturing and slaughtering because to them the native peoples whose skin was a different color simply were not fellow human beings.

To put this in modern perspective, imagine if Goodell’s stated reasons for the team name were applied not to native peoples, but to the heritage of those kidnapped in Africa and brought to America by force.

The Washington Slaves. Imagine if Goodell had to write a letter defending that name which, after all, by his own terms celebrates another part of our heritage. That name is also more historically appropriate for the city than its current name, given that the District of Columbia was a slave-holding city.

What, in principle, is the difference between the current name of the football team and my suggested name?  After all, Georgia lawmakers so love their state’s slavery heritage that they voted to put the Confederate flag on specialty license plates.

The letter reveals that Goodell, like many of his fellow white Americans, is afflicted with a social disease. Physicians would call it privilegium candidioris cutis. In English that’s white skin privilege.

People so afflicted are blinded by the economic and social benefits of their external casing, so much so that they cannot recognize their own privileged status and often perceive themselves as victims of those who lack the skin tone they call flesh.

This disease, however, can be cured through education and contemplative exercises that develop, in tandem, intellectual strength and moral clarity.

Goodell knows better than what he wrote. Last September he told a Washington radio sports station, when speaking about the local team’s name, “If we are offending one person, we need to be listening and making sure that we’re doing the right things to try to address that.”

The problem there is with “if.” There is no “if,” because in fact many people of many skin tones are offended.

Defending the indefensible does not come cheap. NFL team owners promoted Goodell over 32 years from intern to commissioner. For the 2012 season they paid him $44.2 million, up from almost $30 million the year before. So at the least we know Goodell’s price, which shows that the cost of defending racism in 21st-century America has gone up.

Goodell wrote his defense of racism to Senator Maria Cantwell, a Washington Democrat, and Representative Tom Cole, an Oklahoma Republican who identifies as a member of the Chickasaw people. I got a copy over the transom, as we say in the news business.

“The National Football League has great respect for your interest in this matter, and we appreciate the opportunity to continue the dialogue,” Goodell genuflected in his opening to the two lawmakers before trying ever so carefully to explain away the racism that his letter reveals is the official, but unacknowledged, credo of NFL owners.

Why blame the other owners? Because they put Goodell in his job and they could put pressure on team owner Daniel Snyder to change the name. If, as Goodell very subtly suggests, a new name would temporarily damage the value of the team, the other owners could just lavish some money on Snyder as a balm.

The letter was written with extraordinary care in an effort to defuse any continued complaints by the two lawmakers, who could introduce bills that would take away the NFL’s privileged status as a tax-exempt nonprofit.

Goodell’s letter cites polls showing that large majorities of Americans either support the team name or are not offended. The problem with that argument is it makes Goodell craven, not principled. Instead of claiming he is just following orders, he postures as someone who just follows popular opinion.

Goodell then makes four points reiterating the tired old fiction that the football team name “was intended by the team to honor and respect the many positive associations with Native Americans and their culture. There has never been a suggestion that the name had any other purpose at any time in the team’s history.”

If sports journalists, some of whom do superb reporting about the broader issues in commercial sports, would ask Commissioner Roger Goodell, Washington team owner Daniel Snyder, the other team owners — and players in the locker room — one question again and again, it would help cure the National Football League of its dreadful social disease. The question:

Would you associate yourself with a football team named the Washington Slaves?

Photo: Keith Allison via Flickr

Commissioner Goodell’s letter can be read below:


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