One morning a fellow on WSVA 550 who had been on the fence about the controversy announced he had changed his opinion about the team name. The conversion came while watching a rerun of an old Daniel Boone television series episode. The story centered on a Native American child that was being enrolled in the frontier school. The telling scene was when the youth approached and was peppered by his classmates with clearly derogatorily intended pejoratives including the "R" word. In context and told by a series that originally aired in an era when we were much more embarrassed by our prejudices, the true message and meanness of the term rang out.
"...it has ties to a time when bounties were paid for the scalps of American Indians...it is a racial slur like any other racial slur that we wouldn't print in the pages of a family newspaper." - The Oklahoman Online
At about the same time, those "insensitive" Oklahomans in one school district were deciding to remove that nickname from the teams at Capitol Hill High School in Oklahoma City despite "tradition." You see Oklahomans, in a state named for the red people, can distinguish the difference.
The more we learn about how football damages players' brains, the more troubling it is for me as a fan. Researchers say it's not a handful of rare hits - the ones the NFL tries to limit with penalties & punishments - that cause chronic traumatic encephalopathy. It's the accumulation of constant mid-level impacts - the every-snap crash of offensive & defensive linemen, a linebacker making a crunching tackle on a running back. Progressive columnist Charlie Pierce made a compelling case on ESPN's Grantland just last week in the wake of former NFL player Ray Easterling's suicide:
We ought not to allow people to be destroyed - either all at once, or one concussion at a time - for our amusement. Doing so makes us amoral. Hell, it makes us vampires. We ought to demand that the people who run our sports take better care of the lives and health of our fellow citizens that those industries employ. [...]Some of the blows to the head can be coached away with proper tackling technique. But I haven't heard anyone say the head blows can be eliminated entirely - and with even college players dying with CTE, clearly the effects can arrive early & overwhelmingly. I'm not saying this is an issue that should be legislated - but considering how ready the Virginia General Assembly stands to regulate other aspects of our lives, how can they justify turning a blind eye to Virginia football players like William & Mary alumni Lou Creekmur dying with CTE?
There will be people who maintain that NFL players signed on to be cogs in a machine when they signed their initial contracts. There is a libertarian argument that will be made about allowing people to take their own risks with their own bodies. There will be some boohooing about the involvement of "politics" in our entertainment. Standing against these concerns is the simple fact that we all owe each other a debt as members of a political and social commonwealth not to profit from the pain and suffering of each other, no matter who inflicts it or how accidental or deliberate that might be. It is time to regard our individual complicity in the circumstances that we allow to produce what happened to someone like Ray Easterling with a far more jaundiced eye than we ever have. You can enjoy football if you wish. I do. But I can't enjoy it blindly any more. I can't enjoy it with a clear conscience.
Can you keep watching football? Will you let your kids play organized football? What about pro wrestling, where the late Chris Benoit & Andrew "Test" Martin were both found to have CTE? Or hockey fights, where "enforcers" Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien & Wade Belak died in the wake of diagnosed or suspected CTE?
The hypocrisy that permeates big-money college sports takes your breath away. College football and men's basketball have become such huge commercial enterprises that together they generate more than $6 billion in annual revenue, more than the National Basketball Association. A top college coach can make as much or more than a professional coach; Ohio State just agreed to pay Urban Meyer $24 million over six years. Powerful conferences like the S.E.C. and the Pac 12 have signed lucrative TV deals, while the Big 10 and the University of Texas have created their own sports networks. Companies like Coors and Chick-fil-A eagerly toss millions in marketing dollars at college sports. Last year, Turner Broadcasting and CBS signed a 14-year, $10.8 billion deal for the television rights to the N.C.A.A.'s men's basketball national championship tournament (a k a "March Madness"). And what does the labor force that makes it possible for coaches to earn millions, and causes marketers to spend billions, get? Nothing. The workers are supposed to be content with a scholarship that does not even cover the full cost of attending college. Any student athlete who accepts an unapproved, free hamburger from a coach, or even a fan, is in violation of N.C.A.A. rules.