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St. Louis at Washington: Racism as the Game of the Week

The St. Louis Rams protest: "Hands up. Don't shoot."

The St. Louis Rams protest: “Hands up. Don’t shoot.”

As five of the St. Louis Rams ran onto the field for the start of the game last Sunday, they paused for a moment to raise their hands in the air. A now-familiar sign of protest from Ferguson, Mo. “Hands up. Don’t shoot.”

As we’ve all been trained to understand, there is nothing more important in the world on a Sunday than an NFL game. So it’s not surprising that complaints followed. I expect that from the intractable folks who see nothing wrong with the team from Washington embracing a blatantly racist nickname. Or the hardcore fans who seem disinterested in the NFL’s obvious complicity in enabling its players to beat up women. Nothing should interrupt the sanctity of the game, as young men prepare to deliver concussions to each other that will, in a few years’ time, leave many of them unable to remember where they’d parked their cars.

But I don’t welcome the protests about the protests that came from public officials. The authorities who represent the people.

We have a serious race issue in this country. And a lot of people think the best answer is to walk away from the story of a white cop shooting an unarmed 18-year-old black man and now isn’t going to stand trial for his actions. a lot of people think we should walk away from the cause of the riots that surrounded the event. Just like we walked away from the 26 dead women and children at Sandy Hook Elementary.

Because these problems take care of themselves, right?

Cops aren’t the problem. They have a tough job, we all know it. The problem is the institutions that police our citizens. Institutions that are increasingly equipped to wage war on citizens. We’ve been seeing it for years. Police using tear gas on citizens, police beating up citizens, police arresting citizens. Citizens who are doing nothing more than utilizing their American right to protest. The individual cops didn’t make the decision to fire tear gas into a crowd. They were told to do so.

No one was going to fire a round of tear gas at the five St. Louis Rams with their hands in the air. This was a deeply important game between two teams with losing records. But the next morning, the St. Louis Police Officers Association demanded that the five Rams be disciplined, and that the team and the NFL should issue a public apology.

According to the SLPOA, “now that the evidence is in and Officer Wilson’s account has been verified by physical and ballistic evidence as well as eye-witness testimony, which led the grand jury to conclude that no probable cause existed that Wilson engaged in any wrongdoing, it is unthinkable that hometown athletes would so publicly perpetuate a narrative that has been disproven over-and-over again.”

Well, a whole lot of citizens are not buying the narrative put forth by the St. Louis County prosecutor’s office that allowed the cop who did the killing to get away without a trial. And it’s not just the hoodlums setting fires, but lawyers and experts in the law who have expressed that opinion.

Hence, the protests.

The Rams and the NFL – for once, after a long string of public-relations failures – are doing the right thing by not disciplining the players. It’s called free speech, the first Amendment in the Constitution that our law enforcement agencies are hired to defend.

The authorities are never holier than thou. We’ve seen that too many times. The actions of the people who represent us, and defend our laws, should be under constant scrutiny. The attitude I’ve heard raised repeatedly by law enforcement after the Ferguson killing – and let’s not forget that we’ve witnessed a string of unarmed black men killed by police – is, “You’re either with us or against us.”

No questions asked. That’s a little too arrogant for today’s atmosphere of distrust. The police are not supposed to be a separate class of citizens with separate rights. They’re supposed to be one of us.

It seems they need a reminder. Perhaps this Sunday. I see that the Rams are playing that team from Washington with the blatantly racist nickname. FedExField would make a fine public forum for a discussion on race. We could start it with all of Rams running out onto the field and raising their hands. Then all of the players from Washington, that team with the blatantly racist nickname, could run out onto the field and raise their hands. Then everyone in the stadium could stand and raise their hands.

Now that would be the NFL Game of the Week.

The biggest threat: Richard Sherman or Chris Christie?

A trio of fine local singer-songwriters – Steve Piper, Connie Deming and Scott Regan – were playing Sunday night, so I missed Sunday’s NFL playoff games. By my calculation, this is the 12th straight month that pro football has gone on without me, but I’ve been really busy. Visiting mom, picking up dog poop in the back yard, crafting a used-tire sculpture.

But Monday morning, I had to race to the computer to watch video of the NFL playoff moment that everyone was talking about. A post-game interview with a cornerback for the Seattle Seahawks. As a former sportswriter, let me tell you, that’s the interview I always wanted to get. Erin Andrews, after they hand you whatever the sideline sports-reporter version of the Pulitzer is, next season Fox Sports is gonna put you behind one of those shiny glass studio desks. That seat way over on the far end, next to Tony Siragusa, the guy who sells man diapers.

Richard Sherman had just made a game-saving play against San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Michael Crabtree when Andrews pulled him aside.

“Well, I’m the best corner in the game!” Sherman shouted. “When you try me with a sorry receiver like Crabtree, that’s the result you’re going to get! Don’t you ever talk about me! Crabtree! Don’t you open your mouth about the best! Or I’m going to shut it for you real quick! LOB!”
And that was it. Andrews nervously handed the show back to the guys in the studio. The producers must have suspected they had a crazy man on their hands. No telling what Sherman might say next to innocent Americans.

You’ll note that Sherman was looking right into the camera for much of the interview, just like they do in pro wrestling. And, despite still being amped up after making the biggest play in the biggest game of his pro career, Sherman did not drop an f-bomb. “LOB” is a reference to “Legion of Boom.” In the marketing-savvy world of professional sports, everyone strives for an identity, and the Seattle defensive backs have adopted one straight out of the comic books.

Sherman gave the entertainment-driven pro sports world exactly what it is selling. Immediately, sports commentators who moan about the boring interviews that they get from most athletes attacked Sherman for his lack of what they define as sportsmanship in an astonishingly violent sport.  The Internet exploded with racist comments. Conservative cable pundits were shocked that a black man was shouting to be heard over the roar of a home crowd that’s celebrated for making noise.

Here are a couple of more details about this Richard Sherman fellow. He graduated second in his high school class, is a graduate of Stanford, one of his hobbies is reading. He writes a smart blog. Here’s  what he wrote about the reaction to his interview:

To those who would call me a thug or worse because I show passion on a football field — don’t judge a person’s character by what they do between the lines. Judge a man by what he does off the field, what he does for his community, what he does for his family.

Does this episode make you think of another one of the week’s newsmakers? Chris Christie, anyone?

The governor of New Jersey is a loud and arrogant man. He is well known for yelling, using abusive language and calling people names.  He talks down to reporters and screams at school teachers. He is thoroughly unlikeable. And he is  a liar. His story defending his administration’s closing of lanes on the George Washington Bridge, political retribution for some as-yet defined slight, defies logic and is full of holes. The mayor of Hoboken has accused him of holding back Superstorm Sandy recovery funds unless she backed a real-estate development project run by a Christie political pal. He’s being investigated for using Federal Sandy money to produce a pro-New Jersey TV ad that looked to most people like a political ad. Every day now, it’s something new.

There are many people out there who find Richard Sherman’s behavior intolerable. Many of the same people love Christie’s aggressive style. He’s fighting for the people of New Jersey, say his defenders. New Jersey politics is a violent sport. They see Christie a victim of, as Fox News calls it, the “wussification” of American men.

There’s a few differences, of course. Those critics immediately spotted one. I see another. Sherman’s moment lasted mere seconds, and everyone laughed. But the kind of thug behavior that Christie employs has seriously impacted the lives of thousands of Americans.

Your 21st century NFL

The most-important player in football today is an unemployed NFL punter.

Even if you haven’t watched a single play this season – and I’m proud to say I haven’t – you may know Chris Kluwe. He’s the Minnesota Vikings punter who was an outspoken and effective spokesman for gay rights. He took on the issue through interviews, and in a fabulous 2012 open letter written to Maryland state delegate Emmett C. Burns, Jr. Burns had urged the Baltimore Ravens to silence one of their players, Brendon Ayanbadejo, who was campaigning on behalf of a Maryland ballot initiative that would legalize same-sex marriage in the state.

“I find it inconceivable that you are an elected official of the United States government,” Kluwe writes to Burns, and the rest of us. “Your  vitriolic hatred and bigotry make me ashamed and disgusted to think that you are in any way responsible for shaping policy at any level.” Kluwe’s highly entertaining prose goes on to describe Burns as “Mindfuckingly, obscenely hypocritical” and a “narcissistic fromunda stain.” Read the whole thing here, it’s worth a few minutes of your time.

Kluwe is still an activist, but he’s no longer a punter. He was released by the Vikings before this season, and now Kluwe is charging the team with firing him because of his pro-gay comments. There may be some merit to his claim – he seems to have been a decent kicker on a lousy team. And punter is an important position on a lousy team. Kluwe’s also said that his special-teams coach used bigoted, anti-gay language in meetings. The Vikings have promised to investigate. Fox, check out that henhouse!

I’m not naive. I understand why guys are touchy about defining their manliness in the badass land of the NFL. The Packers’ star quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, found it necessary to address Internet rumors about his sexuality a couple of days ago. “I’m just going to say, I’m not gay,” Rodgers told ESPN radio in Wisconsin. “I really, really like women. That’s all I can say about that.”

OK, Aaron. A little “not that there’s anything wrong with it…” might have helped, but we get the message.

The real message is we’ve moved on to the 21st century, and most of us are leaving behind bigotry and laws that discriminate. The polls show it. Americans are increasingly OK with gay rights, legalizing marijuana, gun control and helping the poor through unemployment benefits and by raising the minimum wage. Progressive positions.

Don’t expect institutions to lead the way. Congress, the mainstream media and even our schools tend to distance themselves from new ideas until it’s safe to proceed.

And don’t expect the NFL to lead the way, either. Not that institution, and not its fans. We witnessed that  this season with the Washington team owner’s refusal to consider changing its astonishingly racist nickname. It’s not an old debate, but it gained momentum this season. Some sportswriters are even refusing to use the name in print. Defenders of the team’s nickname simply have no answer to this question: Would you walk up to a Native American woman holding her baby and say, “My, what a cute little Redskin?”

There’s really nothing sacrosanct about a team nickname. Even one that’s been used for decades. But change comes only when the cold, dead fingers of intransigent defenders are pried loose from  their long-held beliefs. Daniel Snyder, an arrogantly entitled owner, calls his team’s racist nickname “a badge of honor,” and cites a poll showing a majority of Americans don’t want to see it changed. Well, sometimes the people are a little behind the times as well. Back in the ’60s, polls showed most Americans were against change in the civil rights laws. That’s when it really takes guts to make the right call. That’s leadership.

Here’s an idea that might help: Imagine a new team nickname and logo for Washington, and all of the official jerseys, hats, flags, kid’s bedsheets, action figures and associated sports gear that will be sold. Money. That’s something that’s always understood by the powers that be.

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