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The NHL is currently in the middle of the NHL’s “Hockey is for Everyone” month, which the league describes as “part of its ongoing effort to celebrate diversity and inclusion in hockey.”
The overall whiteness of the league is a reliable source of humor, both actual (as in a memorable Chance The Rapper-hosted SNL sketch) and the in-quotation-marks kind that nightmarish sportstalk yappers like Colin Cowherd use to beard their vaguely (or not-so-vaguely) racist opinions. Even the most basic Google search (“racist hockey incidents,” for example) turns up a depressingly metronymic sequence popping up over the years.
The latest tick-tock came at the expense of Capitals forward Devante Smith-Pelly, who is black. Sitting in the penalty box at a game against Chicago, Smith-Pelly found himself the target of racially-charged chants. The resolution to the incident was swift: Smith-Pelly reported it to an off-ice official, the fans were ejected, every organization and many of the individuals involved issued appropriately horrified statements, and “Hockey is for Everyone” month rolled on.
The epithet the fans were chanting? “Basketball.”
Despite what some message board quasi- (and not-so-quasi-)racists would have you believe, this is absolutely a racist taunt. The implication—“You, as a black man, would be better suited to the hardwood than the ice”—is completely clear.
The fact that the word they were using is innocuous in nearly every other circumstance is irrelevant. In this case it was an attack, and was correctly recognized as such.
On the flipside: Philadelphia 76ers guard (and The Ringer podcaster) JJ Redick stammered over something in the middle of an NBA-wishes-you-Happy-Chinese-New-Year video. To a casual listen, it sounds kind of like he might be saying that he wishes “all of the NBA chink fans in China” a happy new year, and a number of listeners reacted with the level of outrage that such a comment deserves.
Redick’s initial response statement came off as defensive; in his follow-up he claimed that he was initially saying “the NBA Chinese fans” but realized that it sounded stupid and tried to switch it up mid-sentence. So what he’s saying the video showed is “all of the NBA Chi… fans in China.” Watching the video (which was officially pulled down but is of course readily available all over the internet), it’s a viable explanation. More importantly, it’s an explanation that convinced a number of influential voices, including Chinese-American NBA player Jeremy Lin, who issued an unambiguous statement in Redick’s defense.
So in this case, we’re being asked to accept that what sounded like a derogatory term in fact wasn’t—and many people appear willing to do so.
Which brings us, sadly and inevitably, to the local NFL team’s name. The Cleveland Indians announced that they’ll be getting rid of Chief Wahoo, the offensive caricature of a Native American that was one of their official mascots, renewing questions about what Daniel Snyder might do. (All indications, sadly and inevitably, are that he will do nothing.)
It might seem like these two recent incidents, paired together, make a compelling case for keeping the NFL team’s name. If a word that usually isn’t racist can clearly be recognized as such in context, and a word that usually is racist can be ignored in certain situations, surely the Washington football squad can keep its name, which (many would argue) only applies to the players and not the outmoded racist definition.
I take a different lesson from the situation: When someone identifies a term as a racial slur, you react accordingly. You report the incident. You ban the four fans. You issue a sincere apology. Even if not everyone who hears the term fully perceives the underlying message, this is what you do. And yet the local football team’s name remains.
Redick’s situation makes a different point: If your history is good and your conduct to date has given no one reason to doubt you, an apparent verbal slip can be viewed as unfortunate garbling, entirely without malice. But no one will argue that the local football team has had a favorable recent history.
It’s pointless to even discuss, I know. The team isn’t going to make a change until some genuine outside influence forces them to. The people who don’t want the name changed aren’t going to be even slightly swayed. But the lesson of these two incidents seems really simple: Don’t be awful. What’s remarkable, and depressing, is how often that’s too high a bar to clear.