In 2006, Mike Carey ’71 decided to stand up for his beliefs, even though it might jeopardize his career as an NFL referee. This article first appeared under a different title in The Washington Post on Aug. 20, 2014.
Mike Carey sat quietly by himself in the CBS NFL game-day studio in Manhattan on Monday. As he had for 19 integrity-driven seasons as one of the league’s most highly respected officials, the network’s recently hired rules analyst blended seamlessly into the background, doing what every good official does:
Be unobtrusive and let the stars shine.
So while Phil Simms, Greg Gumbel, James Brown, Lesley Visser, Deion Sanders, and more of CBS’ luminaries answered to a cadre of journalists whether they would use the name of Washington’s NFL team on broadcasts, Carey sat still. No one approached. His secret of almost eight years was safe, if for just a few more minutes.
“I’ve called them Washington all my life,” he said, when finally asked. “And I will continue to call them Washington.”
Unbeknownst to that studio full of cameras, media, analysts, play-by-play men and network executives, Carey’s feelings on the name issue in Washington were established long before CBS sports chairman Sean McManus admirably this year gave his on-air talent the choice during NFL broadcasts of whether to use the team’s name—which in parts of desensitized Washington is akin to “Lions” or “Broncos,” yet is a dictionary-defined racial slur, degrading tens of thousands of Native Americans now being spoken for and heard from for the first time in decades.
Told a search of game logs dating back as far as 1999, his fourth year in the league, revealed Carey had not worked a preseason or regular season home or away Washington game since the opening week of the 2006 season, he smiled coyly, like a man whose cover had finally been blown.
Pausing for eight full seconds, he finally spoke:
“The league respectfully honored my request not to officiate Washington,” Carey said. “It happened sometime after I refereed their playoff game in 2006, I think.”
For almost all of the final eight seasons and 146 games of Carey’s career, the first African-American referee to work a Super Bowl—the official named with Ed Hochuli as the best in the game in a 2008 ESPN poll of coaches—essentially told his employers his desire for a mutually respectful society was so jeopardized by Washington’s team name that he could not bring himself to officiate the games of owner Daniel Snyder’s team.
“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.”
Carey said he never went to Commissioner Roger Goodell with the request, instead preferring to communicate with the person who makes up the officiating assignments. He refused to reveal who he asked in the league office, adding: “Let’s not put anybody on the spot.”
But according to three league officials, who spoke on background only, those people would have been Mike Pereira, the senior director of officiating for the NFL when Carey first made his request in 2006; Carl Johnson, who held the job from 2010 to 2012; and someone in the office of Dean Blandino, who has been head of officials the past two seasons.
“When they were making assignments, I said I’d like to be excluded from those assignments,” Carey explained.
He asked that the matter be kept private. When asked if either Goodell or anyone from the team learned of his request, Carey replied, “I couldn’t tell you [if they knew or not].”
Neither an NFL official, on condition of anonymity, nor the team said Tuesday night they were ever apprised of the request. Beyond that, NFL and team spokesmen declined to comment . The NFL official noted that the scheduling of officiating crews includes working around many factors.
One fact is clear, though: Carey had been allowed by a compliant and he says “very respectful” NFL to take an almost unheard-of social stand—in a profession rooted in its presumed neutrality.
Richard Steele, the former boxing referee who worked some of the biggest world title fights of the past 40 years, may be the only American sports referee to take a similar stand. Steele refused to referee fights in South Africa while the apartheid laws were still in place, a personal conviction that inspired Nelson Mandela to present Steele with an award in 1999.
“I did not know about Mike Carey, why he didn’t do Washington games,” said John Wooten, chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, late Tuesday night by telephone from his home in Arlington, Texas. “This shows you the kind of person he is. He is an outstanding man of character.”
Said Carey, “I know that if a team had a derogatory name for African-Americans, I would help those who helped extinguish that name. I have quite a few friends who are Native Americans. And even if I didn’t have Native American friends, the name of the team is disrespectful.”
The embarrassingly strident defense by Snyder and the team as the controversy has mushroomed the past 18 months, including the flimsy claim that a lack of consensus in Indian country on whether it is offensive should enable the owner to keep co-opting and misrepresenting a people’s identity, clearly draws Carey’s ire.
“I have to say the popularity contest is not an issue,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how many people don’t like it. It is disrespectful and I will not use it.”
Asked to explain his personal journey toward how the name became so toxic for him, Carey said, “I think everybody has to look inside themselves and decide what is the right thing for them.
“In America, we’ve learned that respect is the most important thing that you have. I learned it from my parents, my schools, from my faith. And when you learn there’s something that might not be as respectful as you like, when you come to terms with it, you have to do something about it.”
Depending on one’s perspective, Carey not officiating Washington’s games since 2006—he did officiate their last playoff win in January of that year in Tampa, Fla., ejecting Sean Taylor for spitting in the face of Buccaneers’ running back Michael Pittman—could be taken two ways by the legions of burgundy-and-gold loyalists:
Either a Carey-led officiating crew could blessedly not affect the outcome of a contest in which its crew chief perhaps had an unknown, built-in bias against players in uniforms that had nothing to do with their own choosing. Or, as less provincial and more sophisticated fans probably realize, one of the fairest, even-keeled referees of the past two decades made a moral decision that probably often resulted in lesser officiating crews refereeing Washington’s games.
Bottom line, Carey working other games instead of Washington’s means the product on the field, however slight, could have been compromised.
“To me, if they let him do that and didn’t tell anyone, the league somewhat did take a stand,” said Vinny Cerrato, the team’s former general manager. “Mike Carey is a great official. If they’re letting their officials have a say whether they work certain games or not and the team isn’t aware, yes, I think it could be a problem.”
Asked if he had spoken to McManus of CBS about the issue, Carey replied, “No. You’re the only person I’ve ever spoken to about the issue.” (Moments after our interview, Carey gave McManus a heads-up.)
Carey said his family and the members of different crews he’s worked with have been supportive of the decision.
He said he now follows the change-the-name movement from afar. Does the team’s hardheaded approach to the concerns of the offended bother him?
“I think sometimes evolution is slow for some people,” he said. “But where else in America do you see that, though, the refusal to change? From Stanford on down, most everybody has changed from a derogatory name to one that is acceptable.”
Since 1999, the first year Pro-Football-Reference.com begins recording game logs of officials, Carey officiated seven games involving Washington. The only season he was not assigned to a Washington game before his request was 2003. By contrast, Hochuli’s crew refereed 19 Washington games between 1999 and 2013.
Outside of family, the referees on his crew, and his league scheduling contact, he said he never told anyone.
“There was no reason to tell anyone,” he said. “I made sure I didn’t have anybody else involved.”
Was he worried that the revelation might come out while he was still officiating?
“No, because if it did, it did. It is what it is. I knew going in that this could be a career-limiting move. But you just have to stand for what you believe in.”
Asked why he decided to stop officiating Washington games in 2006 and not earlier, given he began his NFL career in 1995, Carey replied, “There was an epiphany for me that it was time. I was never comfortable with the name. I’ve never said [the team’s name] in my games. But then I realized it wasn’t an option to be part of them anymore. For me, I just knew. I knew that everybody—everybody—deserves a level of respect.”
Mike Wise is a columnist for The Washington Post.