I am going to touch the third rail of political correctness in Sports today --- mascots and brands that reference Native Americans.
You can't write about it without being deemed a callous, unthinking, unapologetic racist or a pandering, effete political correctness whiner. (...Can't we all just get along?) But, as I have been meaning to write this article for a couple of decades now, "Let's git 'er done."
(Although I will admit, I am considering not responding to this article at all. My interests are realignment. This is just an article that has demanded me to write it for 20 years, so today, I am writing it and permanently exorcising it from my head.)
Stanford (1972) Eastern Michigan (1991) and St. John's (1993) were early schools to dump native American-related brands.
Starting around 1990 or so University presidents en masse across the US began joining efforts to remove even the most innocuous Indian related brands from their universities. I am going to call that "PC crap" for the most part, because anyone who is honest about it would totally say that was driven by university leader's desire to be politically sensitive ----even when no one was voicing complaints about certain nicknames.
So much of that offends me to the core. It would be one thing if you happened to have a really offensive brand and as a university president you were really being a leader who stands on principle.
Lets say for the last 200 years you were the say "the Puerto Rico State Indians" and your women's teams were called the "Squaws".
I had a mechanic who was Native American and he told me that someone told him, "I saw your squaw (referring to his wife)". My mechanic told me he almost dropped that dude on the spot.
Squaw today does not have the same connotations it used to in American society.
I certainly get if in that scenario --- an embarrassingly offensive name --- a university President might want to apologize and change the name of his teams. I could totally get it if that kind of scenario was so embarrassing that the president chose to change the men's teams' brand as well.
I could totally get if a university president had a team called the Indians and it offended his sensibilities as a career-long academic because ....Native Americans aren't from India! (Surprise!)
(It's like me taking a wrong turn on a vacation and arriving in Atlanta and saying, "Wow! The native population is fascinating! I'm going to call them ...Canucks!" And then keeping it going for hundreds of years....just because..."Eh... Good enough."
I think most could get how that could be taken as being kind of dismissive of a people.)
Universities are the homes of higher learning. I would totally get it if a president didn't want to have his University's brand tied to an obvious error that went arrogantly unchanged for years.
(That Columbus....What a jerk.)
What I don't like is the reality of these brand changes.
I don't like it when the thought process is, "Eh...It's kind of last century. We should just change it now so no will give us crap about it in the future." You can't tell me that most of the changes of the "Indians" brands that occurred were not exactly that!
Not some principled decision to remove a brand that has become offensive (like the Redmen) or because a familiar but wrong term in American history is embarrassing brand name for a university devoted to finding truth, but rather for no good reason at all.
What has happened is that this trend has been embraced AS IF it truly was an altruistic effort to write a wrong against a people. For the last decade any university with a Native American related brand was seen as backwards in their thinking.
Public primary and secondary schools feel immense pressure to conform to this now engrained thought that any reference to Native Americans as school brands must be seen as offensive. I think I read that California has now legislated that their schools must abandon those names.
I am immensely bothered by all of this. The culture now is such that if you were in charge of naming a new elementary school's athletic brand and you lived next to Native American community of which you thought very highly, you could never even think about naming the brand after that community.
Now lets be clear, I am talking about a scenario where you do it right. You go to the community and tell them the situation, what you think of them, and politely ask if you can name the kids' teams after them and they are totally jazzed and tell you, "Sure, you can!"
Society would never let it happen. People in power behind closed doors would say, "What happens in 15 years when one of the 3 year olds in the community is a now a college student and decides he doesn't consider it a tribute?" So in spite of the fact that maybe everyone in this area might be for it, it would never be approved. To me, that is a sign that the movement is out of control.
Now some might say, "No native American community would approve of that!" To them I say, "Look at Florida State." Having your specific tribe affixed to a high power university can be kind of cool.
I don't think it is out of the question at all that while a native American community might not like brands like "Indians" or "Redmen" and might prefer no mascots, they might be pretty jazzed to have the local college use their specific tribe name in a tributary fashion for their sports teams.
Why not change a name from "Indians" to the name of a local Indian tribe if the idea is embraced by the tribe?
Well... because you can't in this environment.
Recently this kind of PC badgering affected the University of North Dakota. UND has long gone by the brand "The Sioux". In 2005, the NCAA passed a rule forcing schools to retire any and all Native American based brands. (Why exactly was this required?)
After going back and forth on this, UND was allowed to sue the NCAA. Things were immensely contentious between the NCAA and UND. It should be noted that during this period UND suffered a lot of hardships. They were shunned by conferences over the name controversy, creating financial hardships for their program.
The NCAA agreed to allow UND to keep the brand if the three native Sioux communities in the state signed off on it within 3 years. I am frankly a little surprised UND would have signed off on this deal if they didn't think they had the support of the tribes. (Frankly a slightly more lax version of that rule along those lines would have been the correct rule for the NCAA to pass in the first place! "If you use a native American-based brand, you need to get approval from a local tribe to continue using it." Done. Accomplishes all the goals without making things contentious or steering behavior.)
The Standing Rock and Spirit Lake Sioux Tribes approved the continued use of the brand. The third tribe did not. (The jaded part of me wonders if the NCAA had a role in steering that vote.)
The end result was that a brand most of the UND students, the state population, and the state's Sioux population supported as a non-offensive tribute was forcibly ripped away to satisfy a position NCAA power brokers didn't have to take. (You can get a sense of how unappreciated this action was by the community when you read the full history of this on the Wiki page.)
That is just wrong.
These efforts have a huge financial impact on schools. Eastern Michigan has had eroded support since giving up their "Huron" brand. That school was financially marginal at the FBS level before shedding it's identity alienated a chunk of their boosters and alumni who were proud of the name and the positive connotation the reference to the tribe brought to the school. EMU fans were proud of the school, the athletic program, and the association to the tribe.
But again...I am not against retiring names that truly are offensive to a group.
The Washington Redskins.... As someone who is part minority myself, I have always found that grossly offensive and cringed that Native Americans have had to see that term hang on...specifically because of the NFL's Washington team.
It would be like naming the team the "Washington Noble Savages" and then not understanding why people would take offense as a term that wasn't cool to use from the start, aged poorly.
"It's not racist, ...It's Historic."
I have hears some crazy assed arguments but that may be the worst. The "yeah I know the term WAS at one point racist, but we have such a history with it in the NFL..."
Are you even listening to the words coming out of your mouth?
It's totally racist! For most of the term's existence since being adopted by white America (...lets say for 200 years) it's been a racist term. In fact, in it's day it was one of the worst! It was simply adopted in a time when society felt it was OK to casually use those.
(You know the crazy thing about it? The term was super offensive in the 40's and 50's and as a whole, society stopped using it ....with the lone exception of as a reference to the NFL's Washington team. Now here's where it gets crazy. The Native Americans who had to deal with all the racist stereotypes and endure people with blackened souls spitting out "You effing, drunk Redskin!" --- For the most part...have passed on. Most of today's Native American population has only heard the term used reference to the NFL team! And a lot of them are Redskin fans! I'll freely admit perhaps in some ways I am the dinosaur here, clinging to the idea that once a term goes racist, it cannot and should not be eligible for redemption --- but I still think it should go.)
In it's day, it was spat out just as hatefully as "Nigger". I have to think that if the team had been named the Washington Niggers, there is no way today's primarily black pro football players would allow it to continue.
That suggests it's OK just because there aren't a lot of native American pro football players? There are just so many ways this fails the sniff test.
(Some will condemn me for pointing out the obvious, but there are some really weird parallels between the transitioning of the connotation of "Redskin" and the mutation of the super offensive "Nigger" to the trendy new hotness "Nigga". Just saying...)
How right does it seem to have a team with a name that a good chunk of a population group feels has been used to describe them in a derogatory manner, being owned by and making millions for a guy who isn't of that race? Again if you remove an appreciation for the NFL team on the field and just evaluate it on the terms of this paragraph, it is a total failure to pass any test of decency.
And if the Redskin's organization had gotten out ahead of this years ago rather than clinging desperately to their semi-disgusting brand origins, they might have been able to just change the name only. They could keep the logo and be the "Washington Chiefs". That fits for DC.
Or the "Washington Braves". The logo looks like a Brave. Say "Yeah, the Redskins brand in the way we have always used it was meant to be a tribute to hard working Native Americans and we don't want to get away from that sentiment --- so from this day forth we will be the Washington Braves!"
Big Kumbaya moment. Historic enemies hug. dogs and cats living together... mass hysteria!
If they had done that back in 1983-1995 or so, 90% of their critics would have bought jerseys the next day. Washington could have had a huge financial windfall. Every fan with Redskin stuff would either save it as collectable, value-building memorabilia or burnt it as semi-embarrassing racist stuff ---then they'd all go out together to buy the same dang thing with the new brand on the back to wear at the games next season.
But the Redskin organization dug in and created the shit storm we have today by being intractable. Now we have intractable people on both sides.
Today it would be extremely difficult to make that kind of change.
And the Redskins aren't the only pro team I have issues with on Native American brand terms.
I don't like the Cleveland Indians brand on a number of levels.
Their cutesy mascot, "Chief Wahoo", harkens back to some offensive cartoon stereotypes of Native Americans in a bad era for race relations in this country. ...And Native Americans aren't from India! (I'd actually be a LOT more tolerant if they had been called "the Cleveland Injuns" as I am pretty sure no one in India was ever called an Injun...If we are going to be slightly offensive ---and I am not sure if Injun was ever considered a slur --- let's at least be clear who our team is supposed to represent/"honor".)
I'd frankly have a lot less of a problem with something like this....
Makes sense. Slightly cool. Not really offensive to anyone...
Now you may argue that I am being "inconsistent" here. I hate Wahoo but I am OK with objectifying Indians from India.
It's not inconsistent. It's sensibly drawing the line at douchebaggery. I have no problem with the objectifying of peoples.
I think the problem is having a problem with that. That is sports branding. You have a team borrow a name as some kind of tribute.
It isn't that any use of a people as a brand is offensive. Is it offensive to Steel workers to have a team named the Steelers? Were they asked first to make sure it didn't offend them?
Are country folk up in arms because Dallas' football team is called the Cowboys? Are they marching in the streets because Rowdy is a caricature who just begs to be punched in the face? None of the guys I grew up with had any issue with me being a Cowboys fan...and I am far from a Cowboy. (Now mind you if an NFL team had a brand name of "The Hicks" or "The Rednecks", I would similarly feel empathy.)
But the point is, there is fair territory. If someone named a team "The Rastafarians" and the fans all smoked out and wore obnoxious fake dread hats and dashikis, I am not going to be out there protesting it all with signs. People like wearing costumes and role playing.
I tolerated "Cool Runnings" for God's sake!
Nothing will be perfect in life. Occasionally people dress up and accidentally offend.
...There is a point at which you are just being a total pussy.
Let's get beyond that.
You want "Redmen", "Redskins", and "Indians" (specifically in reference to you) gone as sports brands, I have no problem with any of that. But let's agree that a threshold or boundary for fair usage should exist. I would submit the above trio as a good demarcation point as far as abusive territory goes.
Let's admit that there is nothing wrong with the Atlanta Braves brand or the Kansas City Chief's brand.
Nothing offensive there.
It's a direct equivalent of the Texas Rangers or the London Monarchs.
Those are jobs.
Likewise if Sacramento or San Antonio should ever land and NFL team or San Antonio A&M should ever play FBS football and they want to call the team brand "The Shamen" (or whatever the plural of shaman is...) they should totally be able to do it without asking anyone for approval or getting any crap. It is just sensible.
And let's really be enlightened and say if a tribe of Sioux want to say, "Hey X University, if you want to use the Sioux name as a tribute, we think that's cool." Why not just let them?
To do otherwise is just being overly sensitive.
Finally while I would totally agree some brands should go, I would argue there is a value to Native Americans in having Native American tribe names as brand names in sports.
I would argue removing these brands aren't just removing offensive caricatures from sports teams, they are also removing prominent historical markers of Native Americans existence from the larger American Society. White America's arrival on the continent and has already consumed most of Native American society. I would make the argument this ill-conceived PC BS's primary function is rubbing more of Native American tribes' stories out of history, not correcting wrongs.
When our kids come across the Florida State Seminoles they look up who the Seminoles are and they learn. I think that is a good thing.
Frankly if at some point a tribe should WANT to ensure their place in this world is not forgotten decades from now by having a sports team named in their honor, it would be nice to see an environment evolve that would actually allow that --- An America mature enough not to lose it's shit over such an offensive idea as to name a team in honor of a people.