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Pro Sport Team Names need to Evolve with the Times

By Edited Jun 29, 2016 2 2

Redskin Helmet
Few cultural icons have the ability to capture the imagination of our youth like professional athletes.  I would rank athletes alongside musicians and actors as the groups that generate modern-day heroes and role models.  Along with this admiration comes the unrealistic expectation that heroes should be held to a higher moral and ethical standard.   

This is not Another Athlete-Scandal Piece

This article is not about the hurt and outrage that a fan feels after hearing that Lance Armstrong has been doping, Tiger Woods has been unfaithful or Kobe Bryant has uttered a homophobic slur.  We (unrightly) feel that we know these people as individuals given their highly polished public personas, and finding out that our loyalties have been betrayed is disheartening.  After all, despite all the Publicists and media spin, these are humans who are just as flawed as everybody else.   Being really good at riding a bike or hitting a golf ball does not reset one’s moral compass. 

Pro Sports Franchises as Moral Ambassadors

What I do want to focus on is the responsibility that Teams have to uphold the best values of their communities.  Franchises have a connection with their fan base that cuts spans all ages, cultures and races.  Scan the crowd at any sporting event and you will see a representative sample of the local community representation from different genders, income levels, religious faiths and countries of origin.  I recognize that on 'game day', things can be said or done 'in the heat of the moment' that later seem regrettable.  However, away from the field, professional sports franchises are no different from any other business.  They have executive teams in charge of sponsorship, tickets, game operations, marketing, financing and human resources.  Decisions made by these executives that have as much impact on the 'brand' as the teams' win-loss record.  

So What's my Point?

There I was on Thanksgiving, watching the NFL's Dallas Cowboys take on the Washington Redskins.  My 7-year-old daughter walked into the living room and asked me who was playing.  Like all parents, I have a heightened sense of moral awareness around my children.  When I tried to answer, the words "the Cowboys and the...um...team from Washington" came out of my mouth.  It dawned on me that in any other context, the term "redskin" would have been a racial slur.  

Our Role Models need to Evolve with the Times

In the past 40 years, many terms that were once commonplace have, thankfully, been left behind.  If you don't believe me, try watching the following clip from "Archie Bunker" and tell me that things have not evolved:

I believe the time has come for the Washington Redskins to step into the 20th century and retire their team name.  When Marquette University changed their team name from the Warriors to the Golden Eagles in 1994, the school's president stated:

We live in a different era than when the Warriors nickname was selected in 1954. The perspective of time has shown us that our actions, intended or not, can offend others. We must not knowingly act in a way that others will believe, based on their experience, to be an attack on their dignity as fellow human beings.

These comments are as relevant today as they were nearly 20 years ago.  Although I originally felt that the "Politically Correct" movement of the 1990's was overdone, I now recognize its impact on breaking down barriers.  Although Redskin fans are not offended by their team name, Native American Groups certainly are.    

Others Feel the Same Way

I am not the first person to feel this way.  

  • Since 2001, the American Counseling Association has formally opposed the use of stereotypical Native American images as sports symbols and mascots.
  • In 2005, the American Psychological Association recommended the immediate retirement of Native American mascots, symbols, images, and personalities by schools, colleges, universities, athletic teams, and organizations on the grounds that "racism and racial discrimination are attitudes and behavior that are learned and that threaten human development" and resolved to "denounce racism in all its forms, and take proactive steps to prevent the occurrence of intolerant or racist acts."  One such racist act was the 2003 Atlanta Braves "Tomahawk Chop", which can be easily found on YouTube.
  • A 2005 lawsuit tried to attack the trademark registration.  At the heart of the litigation was the argument that:

The continued use of American Indian mascots, symbols, images, and personalities undermines the educational experiences of members of all communities-especially those who have had little or no contact with Indigenous peoples.  

and

It is the responsibility of educators to set the example and teach the youth of today to respect other ethnic or minority peoples - NOT to exploit or disrespect them by using them as 'mascots' or stereotypical 'images' which perpetuates racism.

The lawsuit failed to prove that the NFL did not have a right to the trademark, but did raise public awareness of the issue. 

A Possible Solution

Unlike the NFL, a number of Highschool and College teams with Native American inspired monikers have either been getting the approval of the local Native Band or changing their name altogether.  In 1996, Miami University bowed to public pressure and changed their team name from Redskin to Redhawk.  This name would allow the NFL franchise to move forward while preserving the most positive aspects of their brand.

I am very interested in hearing your take on this sensitive issue.  Do you feel we should respect the traditions of the past and continue with the name, or have I given you a reason to reexamine your position on this?  Please use the comments box below to tell me where you stand on the Redskin name.

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Comments

Dec 2, 2012 2:35pm
Robchipman
Ryan:

I agree with a few points but disagree with some of your assumptions. Pro sports teams are businesses. They don't have a responsibility to "uphold the best values of their communities"; they have a responsibility to make money. Branding helps them do that. If the brand makes money, great. If a tweak to the brand could make more money, even better. But if a tweak to the brand costs the company money it's a bad move. Companies that don't make money don't remain companies too long.

The problem that you're dealing with is that you're more sensitive to modern sensibilities than the market is. "Redskin" is and always has been a derogatory term, in a way that "Indian" never was. Imagine if we had a government department called "The Ministry of Redskin Affairs", or if we had "The Redskin Act". It wouldn't work, period. Your point is well taken in regard to "Redskin".

However, "Blackhawk", "Warriors", "Braves" and even "Indians" are not necessarily slurs. Nor is the Tomahawk Chop racist. It's not used in a fashion meant to denigrate natives, and natives weren't the only people in that day and age to fight with handheld steel weapons.

On the other hand, referring to people as "Native Americans" or "American Indians" actually denies their history and is racism through ignorance. Read some of Sitting Bull's words - he considered Americans foreigners (and he wasn't alone in this). To refer to him, in hindsight, as any kind of American (considering he never even qualified for citizenship) is insulting, even if it's done without malice, simply because it's ignorant (imagine calling Quebecers "French English").

So, Washington Redskin is a slur (and in the movie Thunderheart it worked both ways, with the native FBI agent being referred to as a Washington Redskin), and I think reasonable people can agree it's in bad taste, but it's up to consumers of the Redskin's product to educate the company. It's not up to trade organizations who are not responsible for the company's profitability to tell them what to call their product. Further, if you want people to change it's done best by education and influence, rather than by direction. Tell someone to change their racist name and you open yourself to resistance to political correctness, and resistance slows down progress. Less resistance, more progress.
Dec 4, 2012 5:47pm
Marlando
Hi, I certainly enjoyed your writing and the topics that you chose to comment on. However, I am opposed to the new political correctess because for only one thing it denies the first amendment and is about as American as Chop Suey. And why would redskins be an offenseive name? Sounds like its honoring in its symbolism to me?
Anyway, what a great world since I can disagree with you and still give two big thumbs up for a great writing job.
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Bibliography

  1. Wikipedia "Redskin." Wikipedia. 23/11/2013 <Web >
  2. "Hail to the _______________!." Washington City Paper. 1/10/2012. 23/11/2012 <Web >

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