When I was a youngster going to Chicago Cubs baseball games with my family, we liked to bring signs with sayings such as, “Shuffle the Cards” when we played the St. Louis Cardinals or “A Rose by any other name would still smell,” a reference to Cincinnati Reds player Pete Rose. Trash talk and insults have always been a part of sports. But there is an insult of another kind that needs to be addressed in today’s professional sports – racially insensitive team names and mascots.
At the forefront of Native American discontent is the name “Redskins” for Washington D.C.’s professional football team. To be sure, there are many other team names and mascots that can be considered offensive. The Cleveland Indians’ mascot, for example, is a grinning caricature of a Native American. Other teams depict fierce Indian faces with warpaint. The Atlanta Braves fans do the “tomahawk chop” at games, offensively stereotyping Native Americans as violent and vicious.
The Redskins name, however, holds particular contempt for the native people of the Americas. Unlike team names such as Chiefs, Braves, Seminoles, and Blackhawks, the word “Redskins” is itself a racial slur. There would be outrage if a team named itself the “Chinks,” the “Spics,” or the “Jigaboos.” Why isn’t their equal outrage about “Redskins”? I think the reason lies in the marginalization of Native Americans. Most Americans don’t think of Indians as real people who still exist today. To them, “Redskins” is akin to “Vikings,” a proud people of a bygone era. This attitude must change.
A case can be made that all Native American team names and mascots should be abandoned. Although team owners and fans claim they are using the names and images out of great respect, most Native American people don’t feel respected. When my alma mater, the University of Illinois, decided to do away with its Indian mascot, there was a hue and cry from diehard fans. Chief Illiniwek was fun to watch, I’ll admit. But having an Irish guy from the suburbs of Chicago dance around in an Indian costume and headdress is still offensive.
Another reason to do away with Indian team names is that these names encourage fans to don warpaint and Indian headdresses and use so-called Indian war whoops during games. All of this is deeply offensive to Native Americans. Indian writers have pointed out that the headdress so casually donned by everyone from sports fans to supermodels is a mark of earned honor and respect in an Indian tribe.
I am sure if the Washington Redskins changed their name, fans would still come out to see them play. In the same vein, a Native American blogger has proposed an alternative image for the Chicago Blackhawks that would remove the depiction of an Indian face:
It takes a little creativity and more than a little sensitivity to make the world just a bit better for minority Americans. A Native American proverb says, “Oh, Great Spirit, grant that I may not criticize my neighbor until I have walked a mile in his moccasins.” With empathy, we can understand others’ points of view and correct the ignorance and prejudice of the past and present.