In 2000, a private institution of higher education nestled in a quiet Chicago suburb decided that the time was nigh to change its collegiate mascot. Odds are not even the most bratwurst-scarfing, jersey-junkie, beer-chugging sports fan in the nation had ever heard of—let alone followed—the athletic endeavors of the NCAA Division III Wheaton College Crusaders. All the same, any time my alma mater toured one of its sports teams across Europe, its team mascot drew its fair share of attention—and aghast looks—from Iceland to Istanbul.
Then-Wheaton College President Duane Litfin went on record with the following statement: “I came to realize that those [Crusades] were not very happy episodes in Christianity. They are not something we want to glorify.”
“Not very happy episodes?” No shit. If you don’t recall the Fourth Crusade, permit me to remind you that, in the early 13th century, Christians intent on “liberating” the Holy Land made a pit stop in Constantinople and proceeded to sack the city, raid the great cathedral of Hagia Sophia, and rape and murder fellow Christians in such a bloodthirsty manner that more than one historian has gone on record to describe these events as perhaps the worst crime spree in recorded history.
About the only team mascot other than the Crusaders that could possibly be more insensitive to European minds would be the Roaring Tertiary Reich.
Wheaton College ultimately settled on the puzzling nickname replacement of “Thunder”—perhaps punishing itself in flagellating fashion with the selection of an object nearly impossible to depict.
The important word to capture in all of this is President Litfin’s interesting use of the term “glorify.” Indeed, from Buckeyes to Banana Slugs, from Patriots to Packers, what a team calls itself, the iconography it uses to depict itself, becomes a kind of self-crowning glorification for followers and fans. An honoring objectification. But a major problem arises when the “object” of glory doesn’t want to be glorified—especially because “it” resents the reason it has been placed on a stadium pedestal.
Lions, Tigers and Bears aren’t really in a position to object to objectification, as it were. They also don’t care; our games mean nothing to them. But human beings, people groups, have every right to decline this “honor”—especially when they are the victim of a centuries-long tragedy and are well aware of the fact that the entire reason they are being “revered” is because they stood up for themselves while their family and friends were slaughtered, while their homeland was slowly stolen, and while they were lied to, cheated and robbed at every possible opportunity.
“Hey, Pale Skin, take your little football helmet tribute and shove it up your lily white ass.” (My words, not theirs.)
We all know where I’m going with this, but stick around. It’s going to get interesting.
The vast majority of culturally insensitive (“honoring”) athletic team mascots in our nation are, of course, references to Native American heritage: Indians, Chief, Braves, Warriors, Redmen, Mohawks, Chippewas, Arrows, Chieftans, Savages, Tribe, Teepees, to name but a few. I even came across one reference to the Brownies; yeah, loads of honor there.
As schools and sports leagues fanned out across the United States throughout the 19th century and early 20th century, there was an apparent great need to memorialize the fighting spirit and skin color of the people groups we settlers did our best to exterminate. (By the way, I wonder if there’s a soccer team in Turkey called the Cappadocia Armenians.)
In the years following the Civil Rights Movement, calls began to emerge to undo decades of mascot stereotyping across the Fruited Plain. Two of the earliest conscience-based mascot switcheroos were of the Stanford Indian to the Stanford Cardinal (1972), as well as the Syracuse Warrior to the Syracuse Orange (1978). Curiously, in both cases, these academic institutions made transitions from Native Americana to the Crayola Spectrum.
The NCAA only needed a mere four decades thereafter (sheesh) to crack down on culturally insensitive mascots and representative iconography with a threat to ban such institutions from hosting postseason tournaments. Between 2005 and 2006, nearly all “Indians” institutions turned over new mascot leaves. Several institutions sought and received approval by various Native American nations to continue using their nicknames, the most notable being Florida State University with its Seminoles. There is of course a parallel history with respect to high school mascots, which you can read more about here.
There remains a number of indigenous peoples-themed holdouts within the world of professional sports. We yet have the Cleveland Indians, the Chicago Blackhawks and, most nefarious of all, the Washington Redskins. People can debate all day the virtues or offensiveness of these nicknames and mascots, but it seems to me that the people we should be listening to foremost on the subject are the Native Americans themselves.
We have taken away everything else from them over the centuries: for God’s sake, can’t we at least “honor” their voice?
One thing is for certain: “Redskins” is not considered an honorable descriptor by any Native American. Or as Clyde Bellcourt, co-founder and director of the American Indian Movement and an organizer with the National Coalition on Racism in Sports and the Media, puts it, “The ‘R’ word is not different than the ‘N’ word.”
Also, for what it’s worth, the term doesn’t pass the Crayola Litmus Test. “Redskin” is not a color one is likely to find in a box of crayons any time soon.
And why not? BECAUSE IT IS OFFENSIVE.
I realize that we live in a world where tens of thousands of human beings are upended daily by planetary tragedies such as typhoons and tsunamis. Ours is a terrestrial sphere where, even when Mother Nature lets down her guard, entire communities are gassed by dictators and car-bombed by fundamentalists. To say nothing of the fact that, just weeks ago, Senator He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named of Texas came within mere moments of orchestrating economic Armageddon.
So why am I devoting 2,000 words hoping somehow to contribute to shaming the National Billionaire League into changing the name of a goddamned football team?
Because of a drink I had at the bar.
Let me explain.
The other day, my buddy and I were enjoying happy hour sarsaparillas at the local tavern. Upon the television screen appeared an advertisement for the evening’s matchup between the Washington Redskins and the Minnesota Vikings.
We both got a bit of a roll-our-eyes chuckle out of the ad. My friend is a Lumbee Native American. I am of Norwegian-American descent.
He vs. Me.
But I got to thinking. I’m not at all insulted by the mascot of my hometown Minnesota Vikings. The Vikings are represented by a braided, yellow-haired Nordic man. His face is chiseled. Odin’s mercy upon the man who dares challenge his horn’d bronze helmet.
There, opposite Mr. Norge on the television screen was a figure as American as a buffalo nickel. For Pete’s sake, it is the image on the verso of the buffalo nickel! Copper-Skinned Indigenous Man. Stalwart Autochthon.
Manly images for a manly sport. Who could possibly object?
But then I wondered how I would feel if the name of my hometown team were a bit more concentrated in its reference. Forget the Icelandic founders of modern democracy; what about the Nordic raiders who terrorized the British Isles back in the day? You know, the rapists and pillagers of Ye Ole Western Europe.
Ah, yes: the Minnesota Rapists.
How would I feel wearing one of those jerseys throughout the course of a 16-game season?
Hey, the Rapists are coming to town! Yes, the Purple-People-Eating Minnesota Rapists. The Rapists recover the fumble. The Rapists quarterback takes the ball from under center. Touchdown, Rapists! The Rapists Cheerleaders are looking mighty fine this afternoon. The Rapists’ coach throws the challenge flag. The Rapists call a timeout with 1:32 remaining in the fourth. Rapists win! The Rapists are playoff bound! Your Minnesota Rapists are Super Bowl Champions!
Can’t it just be enough that a significant percentage of our national population finds the mascot of a professional sports team degrading to its ethnic identity? There is nothing—Nothing—NOTHING positive about a professional sports team name based on a racial slur.
Blackskins. Yellowskins. Paleskins. Redskins. Just plain awful.
Thankfully, some very credible media organizations are finally taking Native Americans at their word. Take a minute to read how the San Francisco Chronicle intends to report the upcoming November 25 match between the San Francisco 49ers and the Washington ________.
Yet even though the Chronicle and a number of other major media organizations, including the Kansas City Star and Slate.com, are joining the BLANK Bandwagon, it appears that the National Football League still isn’t ready to force Washington owner Daniel Snyder to right this obvious cultural wrong.
That said, I would like to suggest a one-up on the SF Chronicle. Instead of not referring to the Washington team name, let us instead make our point a bit more obvious by descending into pure nomenclature madness.
Starting the final week of the current NFL schedule, let’s simply assign equally reprehensible mascot names to all the other professional football teams.
If NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell refuses to enforce justice, the least we can do is show him how it feels to be a Native American in a Washington Redskins world.
(If you’re easily offended, stop reading here.)
Thus, here is my suggested revised NFL Nomenclature, beginning December 22, 2013:
Sunday, 1 p.m. Cleveland Colored vs. New York N*****s
Sunday, 1 p.m. Dallas Dummkopf Gun Totin’ Shitheads vs. Washington Redskins
Sunday, 1 p.m. Denver Columbine Survivors vs. Houston Spics
Sunday, 1 p.m. Indianapolis Klan vs. Kansas City Kikes
Sunday, 1 p.m. Miami Wetbacks vs. Buffalo Borderline Personality Disorder
Sunday, 1 p.m. Minnesota Rapists vs. Cincinnati Wet Split Beavers
Sunday, 1 p.m. New Orleans Prison vs. Carolina Mortgage-Backed Security Dicks
Sunday, 1 p.m. Tampa Bay Type II Diabetes vs. St. Louis Hepatitis Needles
Sunday, 1 p.m. Tennessee Tea Bag Lickers vs. Jacksonville VD Strippers
Sunday, 4:05 p.m. Arizona Deep Vein Thrombosis vs. Seattle Slats
Sunday, 4:05 p.m. New York Whops vs. Detroit Bankrupt
Sunday, 4:05 p.m. Oakland Urban Forget-Me-Nots vs. San Diego Border-Cross Bones
Sunday, 4:25 p.m. Pittsburgh Pollacks vs. Green Bay Drunk
Sunday, 8:30 p.m. New England Solipsism vs. Baltimore Fat
Monday Night, 8:40 p.m. Atlanta Baptist Buffoons vs. San Francisco Queer
How many of us would dare don such jerseys as fans? To say nothing of the players!
Well, then just imagine what it’s like to be a person of Native American heritage who sees a derogatory reference to his or her ancestors—to his or her own personal being—on ESPN and every other major sports media outlet, and in print and online media, week after week after week.
I know I’ve made my point, but I want to conclude with another anecdote that inspired this article.
If you’ve been following my articles lately, you know that my five-year-old daughter and I have spent quite a bit of time this year discussing sensitivity to Native American heritage. Here is a link to an article I published a few weeks back about Columbus Day. Also, please keep in mind that we have a strict rule in our home that we use the term “Native American” exclusively to refer to people of indigenous ancestry on our continent.
The other day, my daughter asked me who the Minnesota Vikings most recently played.
“Oh, let’s see,” I replied. “It was the Thursday night game. I caught a bit of it. The Vikings beat, um, er, Washington. The score was 34-27.”
My daughter: “Yay! The Washington what?”
“Huh?” I stalled.
My daughter again: “What’s the Washington team name, Papa?”
I picked up the nearest object and begin fiddling with it. “Oh…you know, Washington.”
My daughter, this time hands on hips: “Seriously, dad. What’s the Washington team name? What are they called?”
Yeah, um, that.
By the way, if you want to contact the Washington Redskins organization, it will literally take you less than 30 seconds. Just click this link; select Community Outreach. Tell Mr. Snyder that indeed “you have a problem.”
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