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The N-Word, the Redskins, and What Hypocrisy is Really About

February 26th, 2014 by Elijah Weber · No Comments


Recently, the NFL has proposed a rule-change that would impose a 15-yard penalty for using the N-word while on the field of play.  This proposal has sparked a good deal of debate on a variety of issues ranging from how such a rule would be imposed to whether this word is, in fact, offensive in all cases.

One thing seems pretty clear–there’s a real debate here, particularly about whether it’s acceptable for African-American people to use this word toward each other, and whether the allegedly affectionate use of the term ought to be treated as similar in kind to the racial slur.

But there’s another issue here–the NFL has a team called the Redskins, which many people regard as a racial slur against Native American people.  Elsewhere, I’ve discussed whether it’s ever acceptable to use the name of a particular group, whether derogatory or not, as a mascot for a sports team.  The proposed rule change banning the N-word has reinvigorated this debate, and cast it in a slightly different light.

One might think that prohibiting the use of the N-word, while simulataneously allowing one of its franchises to be named the Redskins, is a clear case of hypocrisy on the part of the NFL.

But what do we mean when we say such a position is hypocritical?  In part, we mean that the subject of such a charge is endorsing an inconsistent position, advocating for two contradictory conclusions about the same sort of situation.  But hypocrisy is also a moral criticism.  To say that one is hypocritical is to accuse them of advocating for a moral standard that they don’t actually endorse.  Hypocrites aren’t merely inconsistent–they are also disingenuous.

Is it hypocritical of the NFL to prohibit the N-word while allowing a team to be named the Redskins?  If ‘Redskin’ is on par with the N-word in terms of being an offensive racial slur, it surely seems accurate to charge the NFL with inconsistency in prohibiting one while allowing the other.

But whether the NFL is hypocritical in the sense of failing to act in accordance with their own moral standards depends on why they advocate for prohibition of the N-word, while allowing a team to be named the Redskins.  In the former case, the argument is grounded in the value of respect.  As John Wooten, head of the Fritz Pollard Alliance that started the push for this rule change put things,”there is too much disrespect in the game.”  Banning the use of the N-word, it seems, is based on a commitment to the value of respect for other persons.

Whether the NFL is guilty of hypocrisy, then, turns on whether the existence of a team named the Redskins is similarly disrespectful, whether in general or to Native Americans specifically.  But is this name disrespectful?  This question is more difficult than one might suppose.  Typically, disrespect requires that individuals hold certain attitudes toward others, specifically attitudes of disregard or lack of concern for their interests.  It’s pretty easy to see how using the word ‘redskin’ to refer to or describe a Native American person would be disrespectful.

But it’s less clear whether naming a team the Redskins is similarly disrespectful.  Proponents of the name have claimed the opposite, that the name is a term of honor and respect.  Opponents, primarily Native American groups, have disagreed, claiming that the name is a racial slur, the use of which demonstrates an insensitivity to the historical plight of Native American peoples.

If that’s the case, then naming a team the Redskins appears to involve the lack of regard for others that is characteristic of disrespect.  And if that’s the case, then the NFL is indeed guilty of hypocrisy, because allowing a team to be named the Redskins is disrespectful in precisely the way they claim to oppose in prohibiting the use of the N-word.

It seems likely that the NFL is, indeed, guilty of hypocrisy.  If prohibiting the use of the N-word is based on a commitment to the value of respect for others, then allowing a team to be named the Redskins is similarly disrespectful.  To prohibit one while tolerating the other is, by definition, hypocritical.  And the NFL should be embarassed by its very public inability to recognize that this is the case.

What do you think about this situation?  Is the name “Redskins” disrespectful?  If not, what’s the difference between the R-word and the N-word?


About the Author

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Eli Weber is a PhD student at Bowling Green State University, working primarily in ethics and philosophy of the emotions. He holds Master's degrees in philosophy from Bowling Green and Colorado State University. He lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with his wife Laura, his son Brandon, and two cats.

© 2008 Elijah Weber

Tags: Applied Ethics · Social Ethics

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