Friday November 21, 2014

Sports controversy: what’s in a name?


View from the Cheap Seats is kind of an extension of the newsroom. Whenever our three regular reporters, Calvin Daniels, Thom Barker and Randy Brenzen are in the building together, it is frequently a site of heated debate. This week: Should sports teams such as the Redskins, Indians and Braves change their names?

Past due

The Washington Redskins, Atlanta Braves and Cleveland Indians are rather iconic names in the world of professional sport.

But the question now being asked is should the team nicknames be changed?

There is increasing awareness the names Redskins, Braves, and Indians are offensive to First Nations people.

I must say I am shocked that it has taken until 2014 for the question to have reached the point of significant debate.

It is rather easy to understand how the nicknames could be seen as offensive. The term Redskin has certainly had negative connotations toward a segment of society in the past, as have Indians and Braves.

In this era I must say I am surprised the leagues involved, Major League Baseball and the National Football League, have no mandated name changes.

It is also surprising, and somewhat disheartening, the franchises have not taken the step to change it themselves.

It’s not like there is not precedent for change.

The National Basketball Association Washington Bullets are now the Wizards. The name change was a move of social conscience. In 1995, owner Abe Pollin announced he was changing the team’s name because Bullets had acquired violent overtones that had made him increasingly uncomfortable over the years, particularly given the high homicide and crime rate in the early 1990s in Washington, D.C.

Sport nicknames with racist overtones need to be changed too, and preferably sooner than later in the case of Washington, Cleveland and Atlanta.

- Calvin Daniels

Words matter

In order to understand the topic at hand, I think we need to go back why these teams were named as they were. For the most part, offensive sports team names play on Native American themes. There is some evidence—and it seems intuitively correct to me—that this has its origins in the romanticized Euro-American view of the Aboriginal peoples as the “noble savage.” Heroic, fierce, warrior-like images, the kind of things people want their sports teams to emulate.

This is also seen in the proliferation of sports team names drawn from nature’s predators, Sharks, Tigers, Bears, Raptors etc.

In the late 19th century and first half of the 20th century, societal attitudes made names such as Indians, Braves and Redskins perfectly acceptable. After all that’s what everyone called them.

In a case like this, it is often useful to use a shoe-on-the-other-foot argument. What if the Cleveland Indians were called the Cleveland Caucasians? Not overly offensive, but kind of lame. Or, what if we were to update it to current terminology, the Cleveland Native Americans. Again, it just doesn’t make a lot of sense. In the case of the Cleveland baseball team, though, the truly offensive thing is the grinning caricature of “Chief Wahoo” that serves as their logo (and formerly their mascot).

Of course, there is a continuum of offensiveness, from University of Florida Seminoles, which is actually officially sanctioned by two of the three remaining groups of Seminoles to Atlanta Braves, where again, the more offensive thing is the behaviour of fans with the “tomahawk chop.”

At the far end of the scale is the infamous Washington Redskins. This is the equivalent of calling a team the Washington Crackers, or, try it out for size with the word for African Americans that has become so unacceptable as to be unprintable in this newspaper. While an argument might be made that Indians and Braves are not necessarily derogatory, Redskins is an unequivocal racial slur.

Even the main argument for keeping the name underscores its inappropriateness. Tradition is not a logical or valid argument.

The final litmus test is if you were starting a brand new team today, would go anywhere near any of these names?

I think not. Words matter.

- Thom Barker

Hell no

Now this is a question that I should tread carefully with. But let’s be real here. That’s not going to happen.

Should certain sports teams, such as the ones named the Indians, Braves, Redskins, Seminoles, etc. be forced to change their team name?

In short, hell no! And I’m not saying that just because I’m an Atlanta Braves fan and a North Dakota athletics (formerly known as Fighting Sioux) fan.

A team should not be forced to change their name regardless as to the situation. You only find racism if you look hard enough. In reality, teams such as the Braves and Indians use the Native culture as a source of pride and are in no way disrespectful to the First Nations people.

These teams were named after the First Nations people because they recognized how tough they were and how difficult they were to defeat (yes, there were wars. But they’re over).

Instead of seeing it as an insult, people should look at these names as one culture paying the ultimate respect to another. You wouldn’t name your team the Indians if you didn’t respect that culture. You wouldn’t call your club the Braves and adopt the tomahawk chop as your signature if you hated the culture.

All it truly is, is a form of deep respect. It’s just that, nowadays, everyone looks for the negative in these things. And that negative is racism.

Except for the Redskins. That’s pretty bad.

By the way, the best team name ever that everyone would assume is extremely racist is the Dangerous Darkies, a team that used to play in the South African soccer league.

- Randy Brenzen



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