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In Campaign Against Racism, Team Names Get New Scrutiny Press "Enter" to skip to content

In Campaign Against Racism, Team Names Get New Scrutiny

Guy Jones had been advocating for 21 long years, hoping for the day when Anderson High School, outside of Cincinnati, would drop the nickname he found vulgar and insulting to his Native American heritage.

A member of the Hunkpapa Lakota nation from the Standing Rock reservation in South Dakota, he and three white Anderson students in 1999 sought to persuade the school board to change the nickname that “made me cringe every time I heard it.”

The school board voted down their proposal, and did so in 2003 and in 2018. But last week it finally relented and voted to erase the name for good, in part, Jones said, because of a wave of momentum fueled by the Black Lives Matter movement.

“Things are changing,” he said, “and I’m glad they are.”

The very next day, Jones heard more news that cheered him out of Washington, where for years the N.F.L. team that uses the same nickname, Redskins, had vowed never to change it.

But in a surprise move, Daniel Snyder, the Washington owner, promised to conduct a “thorough review” of the name. With that, pressure mounted on other teams to respond. Within hours the Cleveland Indians vowed to engage with community and Native American leaders on the topic, too.

Activists have waged a long and, at times, frustrating campaign to persuade teams to change names, logos and mascots. But suddenly, after so much resistance, a new willingness to reconsider long-cherished names and logos at the professional, college and high school levels, is giving fresh impetus to change team names long considered untouchable.

Some of the pressure is coming from corporate sponsors like Nike and FedEx, whose request for Washington to change the name preceded the team’s announcement. Amazon, Target and Walmart have also moved to drop the team’s merchandise.

“It’s happening in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement and all that implies of Black people and Indigenous people in our country,” said Suzan Shown Harjo, a Native American activist, who has been at the forefront of the movement to change the Washington team’s name. “What’s happening right now is such a broad swath of society.”

As Heather Miller, the executive director of the American Indian Center in Chicago said, “This is an especially critical moment right now.” Philip Yenyo, the executive director of the American Indian Movement of Ohio, who has been protesting the Cleveland baseball team’s name for almost 30 years, added: “We need to strike while the iron is hot.”

For decades, groups like these have appealed to professional sports teams, colleges and high schools to eliminate names and logos that they say are dehumanizing, disrespectful and racist.

The results have been mixed, and resistance to change has been fierce, aided recently by President Trump, who scolded protesters in a recent tweet by saying the nicknames project strength and should not be changed.

Raymond Wood II, a Native American and longtime Republican town councilman in Killingly, Conn., said he was not offended by the Washington nickname or the name of his hometown high school, the Killingly Redmen.

“I doubt there was any malice in people’s hearts when they formulated these teams and selected the imagery that they thought would best represent them,” he said in a Facebook message. “If there was, it backfired.”

Citing arguments like that, holdouts have resisted calls to change, including the Atlanta Braves, Chicago Blackhawks, and Kansas City Chiefs.

The Braves and the Blackhawks both issued statements recently indicating they would not alter their names, but said they planned to work harder with Native American groups to promote awareness and respect. They also reiterated the common refrain of teams with Native names, that they honor the heritage of those peoples.

“There is absolutely no evidence of that,” countered Stephanie Fryberg, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan and a member of the Tulalip nation in Washington State. She recently published a study showing that about two-thirds of Native Americans who frequently engage in cultural practices are offended by the names and logos, and also some of the behavior of fans of those teams.

“When you use a person’s identity in a sports domain,” she said, “and you allow people to dress in red face and put on headdresses and dance and chant a Hollywood made-up song that mocks Native tradition and culture, there is no way to call that honoring.”

Many of the people opposed to Washington’s name believe it gives cover to a host of college and school teams that use it, too. But Anderson’s vote could indicate that is cracking.

In the days since Anderson’s school board voted, 4-1, to abandon the moniker, news reports from around the country point to other schools considering dropping Native American mascots.

More than 2,200 high schools use Native imagery in their school names and mascots, according to Mascot DB, a database of team names. That is 600 fewer than once existed — a trend that was accelerated after a 2014 ruling by the U.S. Trademark Trial and Appeal Board that voided the Redskins trademark as “disparaging of Native Americans.” The ruling was later overturned.

It is not only Native Americans names and imagery that cause offense. Some schools employ names and iconography celebrating the Confederacy, and with statues to Confederate generals toppling and Mississippi taking the Confederate bars off its state flag, school names could be next.

Lee-Davis High School in Mechanicsville, Va., is known as the Confederates, and a local N.A.A.C.P. chapter said it would revive an effort to change the name.

Avi Hopkins, a Black running back who graduated in 1994, recalled his anguish when, after scoring touchdowns, cries of, “Go Confederates,” would ring in his ears, a needling reminder that the school’s name honored the pillars of the Confederacy, Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis.

“It really broke me in half,” said Hopkins, who later played at the Virginia Military Institute. “I knew that my success was bringing a positive light to men who negatively impacted my ancestors.”

But much of the momentum to change mascots or team names has focused on Native American references, particularly the name the Washington team uses.

It has defenders among schools that use it, too.

Loudon High School near Knoxville, Tenn, is one. Jeff Harig, the football coach, said it was originally adopted to respectfully reflect the area’s Cherokee Nation heritage and history.

“I would like to think that we embody the positives of the Native American culture,” he said. “So for me personally, I hope we can keep the Redskins name.”

In Bucks County, Pa., Neshaminy High School also goes by that nickname (its main rival are the Council Rock North Indians). In 2013 Donna Fann-Boyle, who is Native American, filed a complaint with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, charging that the nickname was racist and encouraged harmful behaviors at the school, where her son graduated in 2016.

When she was revealed publicly as the person who filed the complaint, people in support of the mascot threatened her and mocked her Native heritage, she said. Worried that the issue would overshadow her son’s senior year, Ms. Fann-Boyle withdrew the complaint.

In the current climate, however, she hopes the school board may be willing to reconsider and follow the lead of Washington’s N.F.L. team.

“Come on, the world is changing,” she said of the school board. “What are you going to do?”

While colleges have been at the forefront to replace Native American nicknames — over the years, Miami University of Ohio, Stanford, Siena and St. John’s all dropped such monikers — Florida State has held steadfastly to the name Seminole.

It has asserted that the nickname embraces the culture of the Seminole nation, and it has garnered the group’s blessing by, among other things, offering a class on Seminole history and incorporating tribal designs into the trim on their jerseys.

San Diego State University has slow-walked away from Indigenous iconography over the last 20 years — all while clinging to its Aztecs nickname.

“There’s no face painting, we don’t allow the tomahawk chop,” said Ramona Perez, an anthropology professor at San Diego State, who opposes changing the nickname.

But Ozzie Monge, a former San Diego State lecturer who led an unsuccessful campaign to change the name, suggested the school was reluctant to tamper much with the branding of teams.

“There’s one answer why they haven’t changed it,” he said. ”Sports.”

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