Sticks and Stones and Sports Team Names

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“Sticks and Stones and Sports Team Names” by Richard Estrada

When I was a kid living in Baltimore in the late 1950s, there was only one professional sports team worth following. Anyone who ever saw the movie “Diner” knows which one it was. Back when we liked Ike, the Colts were the gods of the gridiron and Memorial Statium was their Mount Olympus.

Ah, yes: The Colts. The Lions. Da Bears. Back when defensive tackle Big Daddy Lipscomb was letting running backs know exactly what time it was, a young fan could easily forget that in a game where men were men, the teams they played on were not invariably names after animals. Among others, the Packers, the Steelers, and the distant 49ers were cases in point. But in the roll call of pro teams, one name in particular always discomfitted me: the Washington Redskins. Still, however willing I may have been to go along with the name as a kid, as an adult I have concluded that using an ethnic group essentially as a sports mascot is wrong.

The Redskins and the Kansas City Chiefs, along with baseball teams like the Atlanta Braves and the Cleveland Indians, should find other names that avoid highlighting ethnicity.

By no means were such names originally meant to disparage Native Americans. The noble symbols of the Redskins or college football’s Florida State Seminoles or the Illinois Illini are meant to be strong and proud. Yet, ultimately, the practice of using a people as mascots is dehumanizing. It sets them apart from the rest of society. It promotes the policics of racial aggrievement at a moment when our storehouse is running over with it.

The World Series between the Cleveland Indians and the Atlanta Braves re-ignited the debate. In the chill night air of October, tomahawk chops and war chants suddenly became far more familiar to millions of fans, along with the ridiculous and offensive cartoon logo of Cleveland’s “Chief Wahoo.”

The defenders of team names that use variations on the Indian theme argue that tradition should not be sacrificed at the altar of political correctness. In truth, the nation’s No. 1 politically correct school, Stanford University, helped matters some when it changed its team nickname from “the Indians” to “the Cardinals.” To be sure, Stanford did the right thing, but the school’s status as “P.C. without peer” tainted the decision for those who still need to do the right thing.

Another argument is that ethnic group leaders are too inclined to cry wolf in alleging racial insensitivity. Often, this is the case. But no one should overlook the genuine cases of political insensitivity in an attempt to avoid accusations of hypersensitivity and political correctness.

The real world is different from the world of sports entertainment. I recently heard a father who happened to be a Native American complain on the radio that his child was being pressured into participating in celebrations of Braves baseball. At his kid’s school, certain days were set

Sticks and Stones and Sports Team Namesaside on which all children are told to dress in Indian garb and celebrate with tomahawk chops and the like.

That father should be forgiven for not wanting his family to serve as somebody’s mascot. The desire to avoid ridicule is legitimate and understandable. Nobody likes to be trivialized or deprived of their dignity. This has nothing to do with political correctness and the provocations of militant leaders.

Against this backdrop, the decision by newspapers in Minneapolis, Seattle, and Portland to ban references to Native American nicknames is more reasonable than some might think.

What makes naming teams after ethnic groups, particularly minorities, reprehensible is that politically impotent groups continue to be targeted, while politically powerful ones who bite back are left alone. How long does anyone think the name “Washington Blackskins” would last? Or how about “the New York Jews”?

With no fewer than ten Latino ballplayers on the Cleveland Indians’ roster, the team could change its name to “the Banditos.” The trouble is they would be missing the point: Latinos would correctly object to that stereotype just as they rightly protested against Frito-Lay’s use of the “Frito Bandito” character years ago.

It seems that what Native Americans are saying is that what would be intolerable to Jews, blacks, Latinos, and others is no less offensive to them. Theirs is a request not only for dignified treatment but for fair treatment as well. For America to ignore the complaints of a numerically small segment of the population because it is small is neither dignified nor fair.

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