Another NFL season is upon us, as the league returns to the gridiron Sept. 4 with the Seattle Seahawks kicking off their title defense against the Green Bay Packers on NBC. Meanwhile, the NFL’s TV partners will be faced with a growing off-the-field dilemma of the controversy surrounding the Washington Redskins team name.
And they won’t have to wait long before the controversy plays out in front of a national TV audience: Washington is scheduled to play the New York Giants Sept. 25 on Thursday Night Football, which will get a broadcast-sized influx of viewers this season thanks to the league’s new deal to simulcast eight games on CBS.
That Thursday Night Football contest will be the first of three scheduled national telecasts for the team; ESPN has set two for its Monday Night Football lineup. NBC, while not currently scheduled to air a Redskins game this season, could always flex one of the team’s games later this season into its highly watched Sunday Night Football spot.
The term “Redskins” is considered by many Native Americans and others to be derogatory. And it seems that a change is coming, despite team owner Daniel Snyder’s repeated attempts to protect the franchise’s 77-year-old name.
It no longer seems a matter of if, but when, one of the most storied NFL franchises bows to mounting pressure.
The story has gained momentum over the past several months thanks to a collision of media, politics, business and race. On the expanded number of national football telecasts slated for this fall, networks and individual broadcasters will be increasingly marginalizing the nickname. Beginning with Bob Costas of NBC last fall, and moving through the long offseason, when the story rarely left the spotlight, more and more prominent figures have spoken out on the issue, including President Obama. The U.S. Patent Office even voted to cancel the team’s trademark for use of the name, dealing a potentially crippling blow to merchandising. (The team has appealed the decsision.)
Most expect that in the next couple of years the Redskins name will be a thing of the past, a remarkable turn of events given that five years ago protests barely registered in the media landscape. Pressure appears to be building also even in the home base of Washington, D.C., where fan fervor has long created deep pockets of resistance.
During a Sunday Night Football game that featured the team last October, Costas didn’t mince words on his feelings: “It’s an insult, a slur, no matter how benign the present-day intent.”
The controversy over the Washington team name is only the latest example of the NFL (the alpha male of the surging world of sports) finding itself in the middle of larger societal issues, some of which have come in the past calendar year: Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice’s widely derided twogame suspension for assaulting his then-fiancée (now his wife); Miami Dolphins linemen Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin touching off a debate about bullying; Michael Sam being the first openly gay professional football player.
“Sports is something that is so woven into our pop culture and also into our nation’s zeitgeist, that if it’s good for sports it would be good for the population as a whole,” said Rich Eisen, the NFL Network’s top studio host. “There are many people who say if that’s the case, then why not start to infuse sports with social consciousness to try and let it trickle down from that?”
The fact that football is far and away the most popular sport in the U.S. only further fans the flames. “That is the issue that people want to talk about right now,” said Jim Nantz, CBS’ lead play-by-play announcer. “The NFL is now a 52-week-a-year business; it never has an offseason.”
To Say Or Not to Say
The NFL’s TV partners have been preparing to wade through the choppy waters that are sure to come in the next few months. And it appears the networks are treating the coming season in a “business as usual” manner, with execs offering up a new playbook dominated by an attitude of laissez-faire.
During CBS’ annual NFL media day last month, CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus addressed how his network would handle the issue by basically saying he will leave it up to his on-air talent.
“We’re not in the business of specifically telling our announcers what to say and what not to say,” McManus said. “If they feel strongly about an element like this, we’re going to not tell them what to say.”
That appears to be the company line around the league’s TV partners as well.
“Our on-air commentators have full discretion to reference participating teams by their city/region/state name, team nickname or both,” said an NBC Sports spokesperson. ESPN shared a similar sentiment, saying the network has “afforded individuals the opportunity to decide how they will use those words when reporting on the team.”
Over at the NFL Network, the issue is even trickier. With the network being owned by the league, it puts NFL Media executive VP Brian Rolapp in a tough spot, considering he answers to the 32 owners—including Snyder. Even so, Rolapp says they will not ignore the issue.
“We recognize the debate and conversation that’s going around the subject,” he said. “We don’t sit with our editorial staff or our talent and tell them what to say and what not to say.”
While the majority of broadcasters and on-air talent have intimated they will use the Redskins name, a few prominent NFL broadcasters including Phil Simms and Tony Dungy have said they will try to refrain from doing so. In their debut on CBS Sports Network’s That Other Pregame Show during a special preview episode on Aug. 21, former Redskins linebacker London Fletcher and James Brown, a D.C. native and host of CBS’ The NFL Today, also shared their uneasiness with the team name.
Change, however, is easier said than done. The NFL Network’s Eisen, after hearing from friends that he shouldn’t use the name anymore, attempted to not use it on a couple of Sundays last season, with no success. “It just slips out, after years and years of saying the team name. It’s not easy to do, in that regard.”
Perhaps the staunchest defenders of the team name reside in the home market. Considering D.C.’s long relationship with the team, the locals don’t want to give up that history.
WTTG is the Fox O&O in D.C., and as such will be airing the majority of the team’s games (nine) in the market. While the station had no comment, a source on background said that so long as “Redskins” is the name of the team, that’s what they will be called on-air.
Comcast SportsNet Mid-Atlantic, one of the prominent regional sports networks in the area, is also careful of not alienating viewers by taking any particular stance on the controversy. “Our network serves a market and fan base that falls on both sides of this important debate, and we are committed to covering developments as they unfold and presenting the issue from all angles,” said Rebecca Schulte, CSN Mid-Atlantic president and GM.
Just Stick to the Game
All this talk highlights another issue in the world of sports media—namely, the ethics of broadcasters inserting themselves into the story, a field that has only widened in the expanding world of sports talk on TV, radio and the Web.
Costas, for all the kudos he received for his comments during that Sunday Night Football game last year, also drew his share of criticism for getting preachy and not “sticking to sports,” which has been a popular phrase tossed around on social media.
“People are not watching football to be taught a social lesson or to be informed of what somebody who is calling the game perceives to be a slur,” said Eisen. “It’s a fine line that somebody who is in the broadcasting position needs to toe.”
NBC’s Al Michaels, who has been one of the bigger defenders of the use of the team name, echoed that sentiment during an appearance on Colin Cowherd’s ESPN Radio show The Herd on Aug. 21, arguing that fans are not tuning into Sunday Night Football to hear what he thinks about the issue.
“There’s nothing that can flip the audience off more than a play-by-play guy—in the middle of a game that they’ve tuned in to watch and want to enjoy—advocating, or getting up on a soapbox,” Michaels said.