by Junior Galette
“We’ll never change the name. It’s that simple. NEVER-you can use caps.” That is what Dan Snyder, owner of the then Washington Redskins, said in 2013 amid another of the numerous court battles he fought to preserve the team’s name and logo. Now, after major sponsors joined the groundswell of American voices calling for the team to change its name, Snyder has finally relented. No more will the NFL club in Washington be known as the Redskins. While I commend this important step, as a former Washington Redskins player, I fear the change is in name only.
Inspired by Colin Kaepernick’s protest against police brutality against Black Americans, at a Monday Night Football game in Washington in 2017, I was ready to join the growing number of players who stood with Kaepernick by kneeling down. My readiness to kneel―and anxiety about the consequences I might face if I did―must have been palpable to all those around me. A Washington coach, who shall remain nameless for now, grabbed me by the arm and cautioned “don’t you dare.” I complied, defeated by my fear of reprisals from the organization, staying standing when the black community needed me to kneel. To this day, I regret my inaction then.
That year I returned from back-to-back season-ending injuries. Overcoming the type of adversity that has characterized much of my life, I returned to play a full season―appearing in all 16 games. By all accounts, I was back in elite form: even with far fewer snaps than other edge pass rushers like me, I was ranked third in the League in quarterback pressure rate. With my strong return to the field and my credentials as a top pass rusher with two double-digit sack seasons, I expected Washington to reward my performance and loyalty in “following orders.”
The benchmark for my market value at the time was clear: Trent Murphy, another Washington pass rusher, had just been signed by the Buffalo Bills based on his lesser, but comparable, career statistics.
So when Washington made me an offer with guaranteed compensation a tenth of that received by Mr. Murphy, a white man, I was floored. This time I would not be silent. I spoke out on social media on what I viewed as pay discrimination by Washington. The team promptly withdrew its offer and refused to pay me even the League minimum, and I have not played another snap in the NFL since.
The Nobel Laureate James Baldwin once said, “there are a great many ways to lynch a man.” Although I am encouraged to see organizations like Washington address institutional racism, affecting real change will require a more systematic approach: we must uproot the rotten tree, not just pluck off a few of its obviously rotten leaves.
Although the NFL relies heavily on the labor of Black men, the institution is not exempt from the type of systemic racism that pervades American society. In an Open Letter to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell in June, I called attention to how some of the League’s rules disparately impact Black players. One of the issues I wrote about, of which I have had personal experience, is the NFL’s procedure that allows penalization of players for being arrested before they even have the chance to defend themselves in court. This happened to me.
In 2015, I was accused of assault by a woman who was a guest at my house. Before I had a chance to defend myself in court, the NFL suspended me for two games, a decree that has had severe consequences on my career. After my suspension went into effect, however, all criminal charges were dropped and a jury of my peers fully exonerated me at a civil trial. Unfortunately, because of the NFL’s premature action, by then I had already been found guilty in the court of public opinion. This fate is all too common among Black men and Black players in the League, who are seven times more likely to have encounters with law enforcement than are their white counterparts.
Commissioner Goodell said he should have listened to Black players who spoke about police brutality and that things will be different now. By changing his beloved Washington logo and trade name, Mr. Snyder conceded that the team has been afflicted not only by a racist undercurrent but racism on the very face of its name.
But still having not heard from Commissioner Goodell in response to my Open Letter, I must question how ready to listen Goodell really is. And still forced out of the League after complaining about pay discrimination at Washington, I fear its change will run no deeper than that of its name.