Sports Teams and Racial Slurs

caucasiansby Ralph Scharnau

Team monikers at all levels of sports–professional and amateur–often rely on First Americans for the words on their jerseys and inspiration for their cartoonish mascots. The impact is nationwide because the National Football League, with a number of Indian named teams, sponsors the most watched sport in the U. S.

The debate over the racist name and mascot of the professional football team based in the nation’s capital, the “Redskins,” has intensified in recent months. Of all the offensive sports teams’ names, none has captured the attention of the media and the public as much as the Washington team. Ironically, this is also the most well-known team name and likely perceived by the public as the most innocuous.

Yet, the term, “Redskins,” carries linguistic and historical evidence that constitutes a disparaging epithet insulting to Native Americans. It derives from a 1755 British proclamation identifying Penobscot Indians in Massachusetts as enemies for resisting the colonization of their lands. The proclamation established a genocidal practice of scalping Native American men, women, and children to earn a bounty. A bounty hunter could prove he had killed a native by turning in scalps called “redskins.” Indians became wild animals to be hunted and skinned.

In a May 10, 2013 USA Today interview, Daniel Snyder, owner of the Washington football team, indicated the name would never be changed. Whether Snyder likes it or not, his team’s name is a living reminder of this horrifying practice.

The American public has been conditioned by the sports industry, educational institutions, and the media to trivialize indigenous people and culture as common and harmless entertainment. Some fans insist their team’s name is an honorable tribute, not a bias, just a team name, not a slur. Others cite the loss of legacy and money involved in adopting a new name.
For decades, virtually every Native American organization has condemned the use of demeaning images associated with sports teams. The slurs are hurtful and insulting to our nation’s first inhabitants and their descendants. They promote negative stereotypes, reinforce erroneous and hateful information, and remind indigenous people of the limited ways in which others see them.

The real and harmful effects on indigenous people, particularly the young, occur every day. The American Psychological Association called for the “immediate retirement of all American Indian mascots, symbols, images, and personalities by schools, colleges, universities, athletic teams, and organizations” nearly ten years ago. The American Counseling Association and the American Sociological Association also support elimination of these disgraceful, shameful, and racist stereotypes.
Indians have waged a long campaign urging sports leagues to stop promoting slurs that denigrate others on the basis of race and ethnicity. Major civil rights groups and coalitions of religious leaders have also pushed for name changes. A groundswell of DC public opinion now approves abandoning the “Redskins” name. Support has come from President Obama and a bipartisan group of fifty U. S. Senators as well. Even staunch right-wingers like Representative Tom Cole, himself a Native American, and columnist Charles Krauthammer have called for a new name.

The movement against offensive Native American names and imagery has had an impact with the number of First American logos, names, and mascots dropping from over 3,000 in 1970 to less than 1,000 today. Many colleges and universities across the country have dropped their Native American names, mascots, and logos.

The issue here is not political correctness but promoting human dignity. Using Indian names, likenesses, and religious symbols to excite the crowd at athletic contests shows disrespect and dishonor. The elimination of the misrepresentations and abuses of Indian images, names, and spirituality will require much more work.

Ralph Scharnau
December 4, 2014

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