Doing the Right Thing

Over the years there have been attempts to get athletic teams to change names which are often offensive to Native Americans. That movement has gained new momentum in the last year, responsive to the advent of the tomahawk chop, the appearance of fans in fake Indian headdress, painted faces and behavior which mimics stereotypes of native people. Press reports of “savage” offenses on the field have characterized teams which carry names such as Braves, Redskins, Indians, and Chiefs.

During this year when people are involved in alternative ways of viewing the official celebrations of the 1492 Quincentenary, there is an increased awareness of the ways in which native peoples experience the names of these teams and the accompanying antics of their fans. Rick Reilly, in Sports Illustrated, has described the offense by asking us to imagine a team called the Chicago Jews defeating the Astros, while their fans wave yarmulkes and chant “Have Nagila.” This simply would not happen, and if it did would occasion a prompt, massive and proper response demanding both the name and the offensive practice to change.

The demands for change in regard to Redskins, Braves, Indians, Sachems, etc., are getting responses which encourage hope that some people in decision-making positions are hearing the message of hurt, and are willing to assist thoughtful change. Recently, the Oregonian has adopted a policy indicating that it will no longer use those offensive names in its sports reporting. The Redskins will be reported as the Washington team, or it will be said that Atlanta and Cleveland have agreed to exchange players in an inter-league deal. Now the radio station WTOP, in Washington, has indicated that it will be guided by a similar policy which will apply in reporting and all phases of the station’s work.

While the leadership of such pioneers for change among publishers and production managers is encouraging, there is less optimism that either fans or team owners will move quickly to follow suit. The allegiance of fans is so strong, and the frenzy of team loyalty so gripping that it is clear that fans will not give up favored images easily. For the same reasons players will find it hard to relinquish the identifications with symbols they have come to love; for instance, a few years ago, when Dartmouth College was insisting that the Indian was not an official college symbol, some of their hockey players had the symbol tattooed on their butts, surely resistance brought to an illogical end!

When team owners are told that the names of their teams are offensive to Native Americans, the typical response is similar to one we have heard many other times. The use of the names is not intended to offend, they will say, but ought rather to be seen as complimentary. The association with highly regarded sports, the identification with a winning spirit, the engagement with clean, managed competition, ought to be seen as a positive connection, they reason. Indeed, some have even indicated that the use of names such as Redskins is an attempt to accent the positive attributes of native groups. Unfortunately, the positive attributes are lost on many native people. Fans who invent “the chop” are unconcerned about the negative stereotypes their actions feed. Even a moment of rational thought would observe that a winning spirit, dedication, and team pride seem to work just as well with teams named for stockings and identical siblings; the offensive stereotypes are simply obsolete and unnecessary.

A common response to those who claim the names to be offensive is to appeal to intent. “We meant no harm to anyone … our intentions are good …” That usually gets translated into, “No one should be offended because we meant no offense.” That’s somewhat like telling the person you have just bumped into and knocked down a flight of stairs accidentally that he should not be upset that his arm is broken. You may not have intended that the arm be broken, but it is broken. Knowing that you did not intend that result will make the hurt person at least feel better about you, but his arm is still in a cast, and will have limited use for a time.

Owners and namers of sports teams have an opportunity to address the feelings of those who are offended, both by apologizing, indicating that they did not mean to offend, and by proving that they do not want to offend, by changing the offending name. Simply expecting an acknowledgement of good intent to satisfy the feelings of those offended will not work. The hurt is there, remains, and will be exacerbated every time the name is read in papers, or heard from announcers. The wound is salted every time some fan holds up a sign with an Indian slogan, or when the crowd joins in unthinking chants.

To ask for this change is not to ask for much. It is a simple case of politeness. The request assumes that there are few who want to offend whole groups of people. It assumes that once a person is told that a name is offensive, respect for the offended will prompt change. He has already said that he has no intention to offend; the next step is logical and quite simple … stop using the offensive name.

The change in names and an explanation of the reason will become an opportunity to educate the general public which can learn just as quickly to do a harmless “wave” and have fun with it, as to do the “chop,” accompanied by a grotesque imitation of a native chant.

This is one of the easiest changes that can be requested. It will not hurt nor deprive anyone. So let’s ask our local papers, our schools, our sports executives and owners to do the right thing right now.