Monday, June 23, 2014

The NFL’s backward forward progress


PARTLY THROUGH its own intention and partly because of market forces (read: the evolution of modern society), the National Football League has been in a maturation process lately, moving in something between a lurch and a confident stroll toward a future it can only partly predict, and can’t prevent at all. If only the NFL could make up its mind to move consistently in one direction.

On June 12, the St. Louis Rams announced that the team had signed all 11 players it picked in the 2014 draft; that includes Michael Sam, the former Missouri defensive standout and the first openly gay player to be drafted in pro football history. Sam, the 2013 SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Year, has since signed with the Rams for an estimated four-year, $2.65 million deal. Sam tweeted that he was “Grateful, humbled and motivated” after officially signing with the team.

We’ll see how well he does where it counts; the real crucible, Rams training camp, begins on July 25. But the NFL’s already had a role in helping make history nationally and at the state level. The Rams' choice of Michael Sam may have a big legal impact on the lives of gay couples and employees across the state of Missouri, thanks to a measure in the state’s legislature.

“The Missouri Nondiscrimination Act or MONA would extend the existing Missouri Human Rights Statute to include sexual orientation and gender identity as protected categories,” Christina Coleman reported May 12 in USA Today. “It would protect the LGBT community from discrimination in the work place. The bill, HB 1930, went before the house for public hearing on March 13th. It has yet to pass.”

Months earlier, even before the draft happened, the NFL admirably made its feelings known in a Feb. 9 statement: “We admire Michael Sam’s honesty and courage. Michael is a football player. Any player with ability and determination can succeed in the NFL. We look forward to welcoming and supporting Michael Sam in 2014.”

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THE NFL took another walk into modern times recently; it’s not as important as the league’s official position on Michael Sam, but it’s welcome if you’ve ever tried grappling with Roman numerals.

On June 4, the NFL announced that, effective in 2016, it would abandon use of the Roman numerals for titling of the Super Bowl. The league’s practice of using Roman numerals for every championship game since 1971 has always reflected a pompous, self-important sense of the gladiatorial, as if running backs were centurions and head coaches were emperors. Simply put, it was getting old.

The official title of the Super Bowl earlier this year got its fair share of derision, with people calling it “Super Bowl X-L-V-I-I-I,” pronouncing the letters and skipping the Roman enumeration for the number 48 altogether. The NFL’s change for Super Bowl 50, in MMXVI — sorry, 2016 — will short-circuit that embarrassment.

But apparently, bewilderingly, just for a while: Jack Jorgensen at SI.com reports that the league will go back to Roman numerals again in 2017 (double-M, X-V-I-I). Which begs the question of why they’re making the change in the first place. Some old habits don’t die hard; they just don’t die at all.

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Among these is the NFL’s dogged resistance to join the rest of us in the 21st century in coming to terms with the ugliness of a term for Native Americans that the league, and one of its legacy teams, has attempted to legitimize with innocence.

Daniel Snyder, owner of the Washington National Football League team, has repeatedly refused to change the longstanding obscenity of the team’s name, the Washington Redskins. Snyder has used a number of excuses: historical precedent; a fan base that wouldn’t tolerate the change; the divine right of team owners. He’s been given a major assist from ... the NFL itself. Adolpho Birch, the NFL's senior vice president of law and labor policy, and an African American at that, said on May 30 that “the team name is not a slur.”

"The team name is the team name as it has been for 80-plus years," he said on ESPN’s “Outside the Lines.” "And what we need to do is get beyond sort of understanding this as a point-blank situation and understand it more as a variety of perspectives that all need to be addressed, that all need to be given some weight, so that at the end of it we can come to some understanding that is appropriate and reflects the opinions of all."

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THE UNITED STATES Patent Office begs to differ. On Wednesday, the government agency’s Trademark Trial and Appeal Board ruled, 2-1, that the Washington Redskins name is "disparaging of Native Americans" and that six of the team's Redskins trademarks must be canceled. “We decide, based on the evidence properly before us, that these registrations must be canceled because they were disparaging to Native Americans at the respective times they were registered,” the TTBA opinion says.

The team won’t immediately lose its trademark protection and can keep it pending an appeal. But the team will lose much of the protection that a federal trademark confers: it now becomes harder for the team to pursue legal claims against anyone who wants to print the name on sweatshirts or other apparel.

And the court of sports-minded public opinion has been weighing in. Keith Olbermann has made the name change issue an almost regular topic on his ESPN program. And in a powerful moral stand, Seattle Times sports editor Don Shelton wrote Wednesday that “It’s time to ban the use of ‘Redskins,’ the absurd, offensive and outdated name of the NFL team in Washington, D.C. Past time, actually. …

“We’re banning the name for one reason: It’s offensive,” Shelton said. “Far from honoring Native Americans, the term colors an entire race. Many Native Americans consider it an outdated label placed on their people.”

Shelton noted that The Times has company. “We’re not the only newspaper that has decided against using it,” he wrote Wednesday. “The Oregonian in Portland and The Kansas City Star banned it in the 1990s, and The Orange County Register recently did, too. I suspect that list will swell.”

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It’s the off-season right now, but just like all the teams that comprise the NFL, the league has some work to do before the 2014 season gets underway. More than anything else, the NFL has to come to grips with the fact that maturity — real maturity — isn’t a situational experience. Either you grow up or you don’t.

It’s the height of hypocrisy to make serious social strides, recognizing that the world doesn’t begin and end on the football field, when the league acknowledges the value of inclusion of gay athletes at the same time it embraces derogatory labels that contradict everything its position on gay athletes represents.

The Michael Sam statement and the Redskins controversy show that the National Football League and its commissioner, Roger S. Goodell, have been trying to have it both ways. That’s not going to work for much longer. A groundswell of popular opinion is sending a message a football-savvy commissioner and the league he represents should understand by now: You can’t make a forward pass and a lateral at the same time.

Image credits: NFL logo, NFL Super Bowl 50 logo: © and ® 2014 National Football League. Michael Sam tweet by its originator.

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