The start of the 2014 NFL season finds Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid once again lacing up his cleats and attempting to sack Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder over the team’s offensive nickname.
At least, I think it’s offensive. The race-based caricature is as out of date as blackface and conjures a time when the color of a person’s skin immediately set his place in the pecking order of civilized society.
If uttering the term “Negro” conjures a time of racism and discrimination, it’s reasonable to argue “Redskins” recalls an era when Native Americans were marginalized as subhuman savages.
From the look of things in Washington, however, opinions about the NFL club’s moniker appear to fall along party lines around Capitol Hill. The Washington Post reports 48 Senate Democrats agree that the name should be changed while just one Republican — Arizona’s John McCain, a longtime advocate of Indian Country — concurs.
Reid says his argument is gaining steam outside the Beltway, but I’m not sure about that. While high-profile sports announcers Phil Simms and Tony Dungy have said they will no longer use the nickname during broadcasts, others aren’t changing a thing. And ESPN and CBS officials have said they won’t discontinue using the term.
Snyder so far is stiff-arming Reid like a 98-pound Pop Warner tackle. The owner not only remains unbowed, but he appears to be redoubling his effort to make the argument that Redskins isn’t a derogatory term at all, but a nickname respected by Native Americans. In early August his push to position his team as somehow allied with Indian Country manifested itself in the promotion of the Redskins’ Original Americans Foundation, which supports programs on reservations across the country. Snyder has taken to friendly sports radio airwaves to battle the bad publicity Reid’s generating and speak about the plight of Native Americans.
Reid is a political lightning rod, but those who imagine he’s simply hypocrite Harry shooting from the lip on this issue haven’t been following his career. Not only has he joined McCain as an advocate for Native American rights, but the Redskins dustup isn’t the first controversial cause he’s taken up. And his opinions haven’t fallen along strict party lines.
There was his call in 1998 to have J. Edgar Hoover’s name removed from FBI headquarters.
“I think J. Edgar Hoover is one of the worst public servants in the history of the country,” Reid says with regret only because his amendment failed. “I lost that, but I got 36 votes. And I just think I hope someday that will happen. Because he did so many bad things.”
The name on the building hasn’t budged.
Closer to home, Reid has also vilified the namesake of McCarran International Airport, the legendary anti-Communist and powerhouse Democrat from Nevada, Sen. Pat McCarran. A bruising politician with a penchant for political pork and a genuine mean streak, McCarran was anti-Semitic and anti-civil rights.
“He was terribly racially insensitive and that’s an understatement,” Reid says. “Everyone I’ve talked to has said how mean-spirited and devious he was.”
Reid’s public statements several years ago generated headlines, but drew no action from the Clark County Commission.
Others would argue that a guy who once spoke of a certain future president’s likability because he didn’t speak with a “Negro dialect” shouldn’t be the arbiter of what’s tasteful or appropriate. There’s no question Reid has stuck his cleats in his mouth plenty during a lengthy Senate career that would make George Blanda blush.
Is the Redskins issue different?
Yes. But, in the end, it doesn’t really matter what Harry Reid thinks.
As you take to the couch this fall, TV remote in one hand and cool drink in the other, and embark on another NFL season, take a moment before kickoff and ask a simple question:
What other American minority group in 2014 could a professional sports team slur with impunity?
John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Email him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295. Follow him on Twitter @jlnevadasmith.