Last week, following a recent outcry from several popular news sources, representatives from the Oneida Nation penned a letter to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell calling for the Washington Redskins to change their team name. "Over the last many years, civil rights organizations, religious leaders, Native American governments and groups, Members of Congress and, most recently, the President of the United States have said what should be obvious: the league's continued marketing and promotion of a dictionary-defined racial slur should end," stated the letter.
On Monday, the D.C. Council became the latest group to weigh in, voting overwhelmingly in favor of a name change. Councilmember David Gross stated that sustaining the Redskins moniker "is akin to saying to the Native American people ... your pain has less worth than our football memories."
But the problem isn't just with the team from Washington. Yes, "Redskin" is an ethnic slur, but there are many other team names, including the Indians, Chiefs, and Braves, that are similarly detrimental to ethnic groups. These teams cannot be exempt from criticism.
Last year, I attended a Braves game at Turner Field in Atlanta. Early on in the game, the entire 35,000-person crowd began to participate in the Tomahawk Chop, a commonly practiced Braves cheer in which the crowd performs a chopping hand motion accompanied by a singsong chant played over stereotypical Native American background music. Being in those stands that afternoon made me profoundly uncomfortable. I understood that the Chop was not carried out with malice, but this was a group of thousands of mostly non-Native people engaging in an action that has essentially no basis in Native American culture. The Chop perpetuates a misguided stereotype of Native people as war-hungry and primitive, and, as tomahawks are sacred objects in many Native cultures, it actually appropriates a religious symbol for the use of rowdy sports fans.
I realize that criticizing a team name touches a nerve with sports fans like me. For many fans, their local sports team is seen as a positive representation of their local community. Redskins owner Dan Snyder illustrated as much with his defense of the Redskins name in October. According to Snyder, the Redskins moniker "is a symbol of everything we stand for: strength, courage, pride, and respect."
However, the issue of ethnic team names is not simply one of political correctness in sports. One must acknowledge the real-world harm that is done by using these monikers.
No matter the original intention, the use of an ethnic team name helps perpetuate a conception of that group as alien and inferior. When this team plays other teams named after animals or inanimate objects (literally placing them on the same playing field), its ethnic referent not only becomes alien, but also fundamentally dehumanized. Indians and Braves are seen in the same light as Bears and Tigers; rallying symbols, not collections of real individuals. Caricatured mascots, like Chief Wahoo of the Indians or Chief Noc-A-Homa of the Braves simply aggravate this dehumanization.
The United States Commission on Civil Rights and the American Psychological Association, among other numerous educational and civil rights organizations, have called for the "immediate retirement of all American Indian mascots, symbols, images and personalities" by all sports teams, as these names "harm Native American people in psychological, educational, and social ways." Stereotyping has been shown to have real-world effects, lowering self-esteem and even SAT scores. Over 90% of people on Native American Reservations live below the poverty line and the life expectancy for men is 47 — about the same as Afghanistan and Somalia. Yet, we still root for sports teams with Native mascots, perpetuating stereotypes and cheering as if these communities don't exist in extreme poverty with little hope for change.
But if ethnic team names are unacceptable, what distinguishes the Braves from a team like my hometown Celtics?
Walter Brown founded the Celtics in 1946, claiming, "Boston is full of Irishmen. We'll put them in green uniforms and call them the Boston Celtics!" (The team's PR man Howie McHugh protested against the name, to no avail.) The Celtics continued on Brown's dehumanizing path; both their original 1950 logo (depicting a crowned leprechaun) and their current logo (a leering Irishman) are ethnic caricatures as absurd as Chief Wahoo.
As a Jew living in Brooklyn, home to the most Jews of any county in America, I can't help but imagine what I would think if there were an expansion baseball team called the Brooklyn Rabbis. Picture 30,000 people rubbing their first two fingers and thumbs together miming a money gesture while shouting "Oy vay!" in unison. I can even imagine a young fan in the stands of a Brooklyn Rabbis game performing this cheer with no animus whatsoever, simply expressing her love for her local baseball team, wearing her big-nosed Rabbis hat with pride. (The logo might look something like this.) I know, however, that no matter how much an owner (to quote Dan Snyder) might try to convince me that the name is a "badge of honor," I would remain profoundly uncomfortable.
Obviously, all stereotypes are not created equal. Though they used to be subject to considerable discrimination, Irish and Jewish people face little to no racism today. Yet, the fundamental criterion of a moniker's offensiveness cannot be tied to the status of an ethnic group. In fact, non-minorities are just as susceptible to the harmful effects of stereotyping. Similarly, it may not matter if a member of the minority community says he is not offended by the name, as one person's indifference does not outweigh another's feelings of hurt and disgust at seeing one's own ethnicity paraded around as a totemic emblem.
Die-hard sports fans like me should push for team names that embody the values we want to inculcate in society, not ones that sustain ossified stereotypes. Teams might take this outcry more seriously if it was coming from sports fans, whose identities are tied up in local sports teams, rather than coming from politicians.
I've been a sports fan my whole life. I go to Red Sox games decked out in Red Sox gear, losing my voice while cheering for Papi and the Beards. I wear my Sox hat with pride.
But sports teams are more than just names; they represent a community in a positive way, while still having a considerable potential for harm. I can no longer go to a Braves game or see a friend wearing an Indians hat and simply let it slide as a part of the traditional sports universe. The movement to change the Redskins name is a good start, but let's not let it stop there.