Topic: Sports & Entertainment

The Horse and Sally Hemmings

The NCAA isn’t the only sports group misinterpreting what is “offensive.”

Garrett Redmond, who races thoroughbred horses, has filed suit in U.S. District Court seeking to force the Jockey Club to let him name a racehorse “Sally Hemmings,” after the slave and likely lover of Founding Father Thomas Jefferson. All proposed names must be approved by the body, and it has the discretion to reject any that are deemed offensive.

“Naming a thoroughbred horse ‘Sally Hemmings’ may be offensive to persons of African descent and other ethnic groups” and may be offensive to Hemmings’ descendants, Ogden Mills Phipps, chairman of The Jockey Club, wrote in a letter last year. Redmond is outraged. He points out that he has one horse named for his wife, and insists that naming a racehorse after someone is an honor.

It is true that this is usually how it is taken. A couple of decades ago, for example, the filly “Chris Evert” was winning races while the woman Chris Evert was winning tennis matches, and vocally rooting for her namesake. And for all we know, the horse was rooting for her, too. Racehorses have been named after Nijinsky, Alberto Giacometti, Fasliyev, Mozart, Rostropovich, Stravinsky, Freud, Bach, Rossini, Beckett, King Louis the Fourteenth and Buddha, none of which were deemed to be offensive to the descendants of the famous person involved. About a fourth of the world’s population is Buddhist: if the Jockey Club wasn’t concerned about offending them with racing Buddha, one would assume that it has set the offensive bar might high indeed.

So if these names weren’t deemed offensive by the Jockey Club, why is “Sally Hemmings” different? In the traditions of naming horses, the name would seem to be perfect: the filly’s mother is a mare named “Jefferson’s Secret,” who was fathered by a stallion named “Colonial Affair.” Is it especially offensive because Sally Hemmings was a slave? Because she was African-American? Is it offensive because the name naturally alludes to the disturbing hypocrisy of Thomas Jefferson’s intimate relationship with a human being whom he owned even while condemning the institution of slavery?

There are some pretty disturbing stories associated with Nijinsky, Freud, Becket (who was murderedÂ…a fate arguably worse than the treatment of Hemmings) and Louis the 14th, too. As a general proposition, the fact that “someone” might find a name offensive isn’t a sufficient argument to claim that a name is inappropriate or wrong. The test should be whether a reasonable and objective person of normal experience and intelligence would be offended by it. Call it “The Niggardly Standard.”

n Washington, D.C. a few years ago, a government employee was dismissed for using the perfectly good and inoffensive word “niggardly,” meaning “cheap.” Some employees who hadn’t been doing their vocabulary homework thought it was a racial slur, and were offended. Well, the offense was their problem, not that of the employee who used the word, though to this day I encounter people who will argue that you shouldn’t use the word “niggardly” because “someone” might find it offensive.

Avoiding unnecessary offense is a matter of caring, respect and civility, and it is an ethical value. But ethical values are degraded when others use them to play power games, create guilt, achieve a political agenda, or stifle creativity. Unless the Jockey Club can show exactly what is generally offensive about naming a horse after Sally Hemmings, it deserves to lose Redmond’s suit.

Now let’s just hope Sally Hemmings is a winner.

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