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Why Julian Edelman’s Brand of ‘Counsel Culture’ Is So Effective

The Jewish NFL star’s response to an anti-Semitic slur is a perfect example of an alternate approach to cancel culture

As you probably know by now, last week, Miami Heat center Meyers Leonard was on Twitch playing Call of Duty: Warzone when he dropped an anti-Semitic slur while smack-talking his opponent for daring to try to shoot him down. His exact words: “Fucking cowards, don’t fucking snipe me, you fucking k*ke bitch.”

After video of the incident hit social media, the reaction was swift. The Heat have suspended him indefinitely, pending an investigation by the NBA, and team captain Udonis Haslem responded as well.

The next day, Leonard issued an apology on Instagram.

But then, something happened to interrupt the now-expected cycle of “cancel culture”: New England Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman, who is Jewish, took to Twitter to offer a friendly hand to Leonard:

This sort of patience and empathy is often in short supply these days — especially when a person gets caught on camera using a slur. Typically, there are immediate calls for that person to lose their job and to be treated as an outcast. But Edelman acted against that impulse to ostracize. Instead, he recognized that Leonard’s use of the slur wasn’t malicious. So he spoke to him, athlete to athlete. And he did so with the aim of helping Leonard find his way to a better version of himself.

Importantly, Edelman didn’t dismiss or minimize what Leonard said. But he also didn’t try to turn it into something it wasn’t. “I get the sense that you didn’t use that word out of hate, more out of ignorance,” Edelman wrote. “Most likely, you weren’t trying to hurt anyone or even profile Jews in your comment.” He then cautioned Leonard that this was what made his comments “so destructive.” “Casual ignorance is harder to combat and has greater reach,” he continued, “especially when you command great influence. Hate is like a virus. Even accidentally, it can rapidly spread.”

This wasn’t the first time Edelman had stepped into the fray to help a fellow athlete who had used anti-Semitic language. Last year, Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson posted an anti-Semitic quote that referred to Black people as “the real Children of Israel.” (The phrase is often used to excuse Hitler’s mass extermination of Jewish people during the Holocaust.) Again, it was Edelman who stepped up to educate his fellow pass catcher, offering to go with Jackson to the U.S. Holocaust Museum and the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

While not meeting up at the respective museums, Edelman and Jackson did end up having a conversation. “It was a healthy conversation … playing in this football league, we’re all in a fraternity,” Edelman reported back. “There’s a brotherhood when you play in the National Football League. And when you see something as it went down with DeSean, first off, I don’t know him that well. We’ve communicated here and there, but I knew he didn’t mean what he meant, just from mutual friends we’ve had. So I wanted to go out and take a stance to try to help him get through what he had to get to. Because we’ve all had some sort of adverse situation that we’ve had to deal with. I just wanted to go out and do what I could to not only show that I support my community but also show that I’m here to help people in our league, because we’re all one.”

Edelman’s reaction to both Leonard and Jackson is a perfect example of an alternate approach to cancel culture — something I like to think of as “counsel culture.”

Another good recent example comes from the Jeep Cherokee versus Cherokee Nation debate. The brand’s best-selling vehicle is named after a nation of Indigenous people, and the company profits off the use of that name and its association with the people’s proud past — without, of course, the Cherokee people’s blessing. “I’m sure this comes from a place that is well-intended, but it does not honor us by having our name plastered on the side of a car,” Chuck Hoskin Jr., the principal chief of the Cherokee Nation explained to Car and Driver. “The best way to honor us is to learn about our sovereign government, our role in this country, our history, culture and language and have meaningful dialogue with federally recognized tribes on cultural appropriateness.”

He later added to the Wall Street Journal, “We hope the movement away from using tribes’ names and depictions or selling products without our consent continues. We much prefer a cooperative effort than an adversarial one.”

In response, Carlos Tavares, CEO of Jeep’s new parent company, Stellantis NV, told the Journal, “At this stage, I don’t know if there is a real problem. But if there is one, well, of course we will solve it.” When asked directly if he planned to change the name of the brand, Tavares said, “We are ready to go to any point, up to the point where we decide with the appropriate people and with no intermediaries.”

This model has worked extremely well for the Florida State Seminoles. The university has become de facto partners with the Seminole Nation of Florida, as the tribe signed a licensing deal with the school, which isn’t nearly as mercenary as it sounds. In 2005, the Seminole Nation reaffirmed FSU as being responsible and forthright, stating, “The tribal Council of the Seminole Tribe of Florida wishes to go on record that it has not opposed, and, in fact, supports the continued use of the name ‘Seminole’ and any associated head logo as currently endorsed by Florida State University.”

For its part, FSU has noted, “Florida State does not have a mascot. Instead, we have the honor of calling ourselves ‘Seminoles’ in admiration of the only Native American tribe never conquered by the U.S. government.”

The university takes this commitment very seriously. Case in point: FSU has “established a scholarship program that pays the way for students from the reservations to attend Florida State.” And the university works with the Seminole Nation on its educational curricula “to further enhance learning opportunities. The tribe also helped design a course for FSU students — the ‘History of the Seminoles and Southeastern Tribes,’ which focuses on Seminole history and traditions.”

Now, there are obviously some offenses — those of Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby come to mind — where counseling is both wholly inappropriate and inadequate. These men are criminals, which is why they’re rightfully where they should be: prison. But while it can feel powerful to band together to “cancel” someone like Meyers Leonard or DeSean Jackson, the truth is, “cancel culture” has become nothing more than a cynical cycle of expected moral theatrics. The phrase has been hijacked by political grifters to exploit white paranoia, and it now has less and less effective impact every time the cycle begins anew. It all holds back the original aim of cancellation: justice.

And so, depending on the offense, we can find a better way to deal with harmful behavior (without ever dismissing the rightful anger it caused). Restorative justice is what Edelman offered his peers. Respect is what Florida State University pays the Seminole Nation — and in ways that the Seminole Nation determines. Jeep now has an opportunity to do the same with the Cherokee Nation. We actually all get chances to do this. Because, as Edelman pointed out, we all make mistakes, and we’re all in this together.