Fanning the flames: Lewis, Reilly, Redskins

September, 23, 2013
9/23/13
1:28
PM ET
The Ombuddies have flooded the zone with opinions -- often thoughtful, occasionally rough -- about the Washington Redskins’ nickname controversy, Rick Reilly’s response to it, and the recent addition of Ray Lewis, the former Baltimore Ravens linebacker, as a prominent ESPN football analyst.

Lewis attracted mostly negative mailbag comments despite making an almost seamless segue from his second Super Bowl championship to the lineup on “Sunday NFL Countdown.”

“I know Ray Lewis is the most popular guy in the NFL and on all those commercials,” writes Kevin Morrissey of Aliquippa, Pa. “It seems in poor taste to have him talk about Aaron Hernandez like he was never involved in a similar incident.”

Morrissey and other correspondents referred to a 2000 incident in which Lewis and two companions were indicted for the murders of two men outside an Atlanta nightclub. Lewis testified against his companions and eventually was sentenced to probation for misdemeanor obstruction of justice. He settled financially with the families of the victims, avoiding a civil trial. The incident haunted him for a while (even though he was voted MVP of the subsequent Super Bowl, he wasn’t chosen to utter the well-known “I’m going to Disney World,” and take the trip, a usual perk.)

But Lewis, who was inducted Sunday into the Ravens Ring of Honor, finally made it to Disney (at least the ESPN division of the corporation). Since his Sept. 8 debut, has been a smooth, insightful TV team player.

Much of Lewis’ 2000 case is still shrouded in mystery. Lewis’ companions were acquitted. No one has been convicted. During his “Countdown” debut, Lewis addressed the case -- if obliquely -- when he discussed Hernandez, the former New England Patriots tight end who has been charged with murder. Lewis mentioned how Ravens management and teammates had supported him and helped set him on a straight path.

(For Lewis’ back story, check out this balanced story by ESPN writer Elizabeth Merrill, written just before Lewis led the Ravens to last season's Super Bowl victory.)

John Wildhack, ESPN’s executive vice president of production, told me he had “conversations with senior members of the Ravens and the NFL who enthusiastically recommended we pursue Ray.” Two other ESPN executives, Seth Markman, senior coordinating producer for NFL studio production, and Mark Gross, senior vice president and executive producer, told me they understood the seriousness of Lewis’ past legal issues and had discussed them before the hire. According to Markman, “Ray worked extremely hard to rebuild his reputation. In fact, he became a real role model who has positively impacted the lives of many people. Ray is off to a great start.”

Perhaps more important than dredging up Lewis’ past is examining the use of his legacy and future. He was a notably hard-hitting player, arguably the best of his time. Read this from Owen Waggy of Louisa, Va.: “Recently I came across a video linked to the ESPN mobile website entitled ‘6th Grade LB Channels Ray Lewis on Big Hit.’ ... I was sick to my stomach. Since when did ESPN become hypocritical in its methods to cover sports news that it runs a string of stories on violence in sports, the dangers of concussions and the steps the NFL has been taking to protect athletes and educate others on promoting safe play and at the same time provides a link to a video of a 12-year old kid pummeling another player in his JV football game? ... What this tells our children is that if they punish someone else on the playing field, they might get on ‘SportsCenter.’ "

THE R-WORD REVISITED

The reaction to my last column concerning the controversy over continued use of the nickname Redskins included hard-core Washington fans who defended it and civil rights advocates who were outraged.

There were also more nuanced messages such as this one from Jon Dewaard of Birmingham, Ala.: “There doesn't appear to be much outrage from the public over the name Redskins; rather the outrage seems reserved for the journalists of the ‘how-can-I-be-offended-today’ industry. The whole thing feels like a manufactured controversy designed for the primary purpose of showcasing the journalists' elevated moral standing on the issue. I suspect American Indians have other grievances that are far more important (and newsworthy) to them than the name of a football team.”

The many American Indians who agree there are more important grievances include Ray Halbritter, the CEO of the Oneida Nation. But that doesn’t mean the Washington nickname is acceptable. Halbritter connected the dots. He said that trivializing the use of a racist slur has had a negative impact on Native Americans’ self-esteem and helped create a cultural climate in which they could be further dehumanized and discriminated against.

Halbritter’s fresh and pertinent remarks were made during a recent segment on the controversy on “Outside the Lines,” which aired at 8 a.m. on a Sunday on ESPN2, its new, diminished time and place.

The drumbeat goes on. In an ESPN column last week, Reilly claimed there was white paternalism in the campaign to change the name, which he mocked and denigrated to the anger of a surprising number of Ombuddies, including Ryan Hurton of North Reading, Mass.: “It's as if Reilly is COMPLETELY unaware of the years of negative history suffered by Native Americans. Equating one of the blackest marks in American history with a recent debate driven by a renewed awareness of that tragedy is not a hot sports take -- it is either willfully ignorant, intentionally racist, or both. The entire article trivializes what was essentially a genocide.”

The Reilly column did seem unusually tone deaf from such a big-hearted observer. Of course, he was quoting his father-in-law, a member of the Blackfeet Nation.

But I offer the last word on this from an old friend, Oren Lyons, the Onondaga faithkeeper and an international representative of the Iroquois Nation. He wrote to me: “There's the Yale bulldog, there's the Army mule, there's the Navy goat, and there's the Washington Redskins. That is apparently the classification of American Indians within the context of the social life of Americans. The political ramifications are obvious. ... As far as I'm concerned, I'm not anyone's mascot.”

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