News & Politics

Veteran NFL Referee Refused to Work Washington Games Because of Team’s Name

The movement to change "Redskins" is gaining a lot of gridiron legitimacy.

Flag on the name. Photograph by Flickr user Ed Yourdon.

For all the headlines that President Obama, Hillary Clinton, half the US Senate, and various journalists garner when they announce their desire to see Washington’s NFL team change its name, they all have something in common: They’re not exactly football experts with years of experience in the NFL, a $9 billion business whose executives vigorously defend the team’s name.

But it appears opposition to the Washington team’s name, which most dictionaries define as a racial slur against Native Americans, runs far deeper in the league than the management might care to admit. The Washington Post’s Mike Wise has a column today about Mike Carey, a referee who refused to officiate a Washington game for the last eight seasons of his 19-year career. Carey, Wise writes, asked the league beginning in 2006 to not schedule him for any Washington games, and the NFL granted his request:

“It just became clear to me that to be in the middle of the field, where something disrespectful is happening, was probably not the best thing for me,” Carey said.

Told how uncommon his social stance was for a referee, whose primary professional goal is to be unbiased, Carey shook his head.

“Human beings take social stances,” he said. “And if you’re respectful of all human beings, you have to decide what you’re going to do and why you’re going to do it.”

Wise’s full column is worth the read, especially because Carey’s story eats away at the argument that opposition to the Washington team’s name is very recent and driven only by—in the words of, oh, say, Mike Ditka—“politically correct idiots.” More of Ditka’s former colleagues are siding against the name.

Carey, who put away his zebra suit after the 2013 season, is now a commentator for CBS Sports, where on Monday, former New York Giants quarterback Phil Simms announced he’ll only refer to the Washington team as “Washington” when he calls its September 25 game against the Giants. Former Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy, now an anyalyst for NBC Sports, says he’ll do the same this season.

Rumblings about the Washington team’s name have even come from members of the current roster, if short-lived. Cornerback DeAngelo Hall said in January that “they probably should” change it, though he quickly walked back those comments before signing a four-year, $20 million contract.

The NFL’s top brass might be able to keep a lid on their current employees. But with respected veteran players, coaches, and referees refusing to engage the Washington team’s name, the push to change it suddenly has a lot more gridiron legitimacy.

Find Benjamin Freed on Twitter at @brfreed.

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.