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The Usage of Mascots of Native Americans in Sports

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Washington Redskins, K.A.A. Gent, Cleveland Indians, Chicago Blackhawks, Exeter Chiefs, and HC Plzen. These are just a handful of the many professional sports teams still using stereotypical Native American team branding all around the world. It is predominantly North America and Europe who are continuing to display ignorance by refusing to change their offensive team names and/or logos. The primary concern within the Native American community is that European teams have only started to acknowledge the problem with such team branding. This, in turn, means that no such discussions have been started regarding the removal of the offensive branding. Although, this isn’t the first-time sports in Europe has sparked racial debates. During the week 4 lecture, we discussed the following article, “Raheem Sterling: the England football star who took on the racists.” Raheem Sterling’s story analyzed the issues regarding European fans being racist towards certain groups of people but refusing to change for the better. This demonstrates how the sporting world is struggling to keep up with a society that has been evolving rapidly to eradicate racism. A New York Times article, written by Andrew Keh, discusses how several professional sports teams are still using names and mascots that are historically offensive to the Native American community. Using the New York Times article as a foundation, this paper will argue the reasons why Native American team branding still exists as well as argue why it should be eradicated.

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Picture this, a mascot rallying the home crowd while wearing a feathered headpiece, a fringed tunic and chaps, and paint streaked across his cheeks. This is the description of Buffalo Ben, the official team mascot for K.A.A. Gent, a professional soccer team based out of Belgium (Keh). Scenarios similar to this occur every day throughout Europe and North America. Teams across a variety of sports have incorporated Native American names, symbols and concepts into their identity. The reoccurring argument from ownership as to why they won’t change their team branding is that they are supposedly honouring Native American heritage. For example, since 1933, Washington’s professional football team has been using the racial slur, “Redskin”, as their team name. They’ve received backlash from the Native American community, the media, and even from other players in the league. Yet, the team opts to continue using the name because as stated by owner Dan Snyder, “the name was chosen to honour Washington’s coach, William ‘Lone Star’ Dietz, who was of Native American roots” (Marcin). Although, it has since been proven by historians that the supposed Native American coach was fabricating that heritage to simply avoid getting drafted into World War 1 (Barr). With the disproval of this supposed fact, it is not a fair statement to say that the Washington Redskins are honouring Native American heritage.

In other cases, teams claim that the Native American references reflect a deep captivation with the culture. In 2009, HC Plzen, a hockey team from Pilsen, Czech Republic, redesigned their logo and mascot as a tribute to Native American culture (Keh). Lucie Muzikova, a spokeswoman for HC Plzen, said the club’s new logo, the depiction of a ‘Red Indian’ wearing a white headdress, was designed as a nod to the emblem of the United States Army’s Second Infantry Division, which liberated Pilsen during World War II (Keh). At the start of each season, performers who are not of Native American descent, conduct a public sage-burning ceremony inside the team’s arena. Furthermore, before every game, the performers conduct a ritual that consists of playing the drums as the players skate onto the ice. Petra Michlova, a marketing manager at HC Plzen, stated, “We perform everything the way the Natives are doing it and with deep respect” (Keh). Although it appears that their intentions are good, it is still a mockery to perform stereotypical Native American rituals in situations that deem it inappropriate.

The aforementioned scenarios formulate the following question; how does the Native American community feel about the use of their heritage for team branding? The Washington Post conducted a survey amongst the community to determine whether they’re offended by such branding. The paper published their studies which found that nine in ten Native Americans weren’t offended by the team names (Vargas). Although on the surface this may seem like a small portion of people that are upset, it’s still a staggering 10% of their whole community. Moreover, there have been many Native American leaders that have spoken out and even joined forces in forming a campaign. This campaign was designed to protest against the Cleveland Indians’ use of the “Chief Wahoo.” After successfully influencing Cleveland to make the change, they have now turned their focus towards other professional sports teams. Ray Halbritter, an Oneida Nation representative, is one of the several members of the Change the Mascot campaign. He stated the following regarding the Washington Redskins football team,

“For too long, people of colour have been stereotyped with these kinds of hurtful symbols — and no symbol is more hurtful than the football team in the nation’s capital using a dictionary defined racial slur as its team name. Washington Owner Dan Snyder needs to look at Cleveland’s move and then look in the mirror and ask whether he wants to be forever known as the most famous purveyor of bigotry in modern sports, or if he wants to finally stand on the right side of history and change his team’s name. We hope he chooses the latter.” (Camenker)

With 10% of the Native American community disagreeing with these team names and logos, a dedicated campaign to the removal of them, and the endless voices of community leaders, it’s safe to say that the Native American community is strongly against any further use of their heritage in sports branding.

Paul Chaat Smith, a Comanche writer and a curator at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, stated, “Pretty much everybody agrees you’re just not going to name a team after an entire ethnic group, nobody would do that anymore, so the question is, why is it O.K. to keep it?” (Keh). This statement from Paul Chaat Smith seamlessly provides a general explanation as to why such team branding should be eradicated. Teams like K.A.A. Gent, for example, devote a lengthy page on their website to the history of its logo and nickname but notes only that the club is “aware of the public debate in American society around the use of stereotypical images and caricatures” (Keh). Posting a vague explanation on your team website, while also acknowledging that your team name is being protested, isn’t enough to justify the continuance of it. It’s not just professional sports teams that are using these offensive branding methods, it’s also high schools. Predominantly in America, high school students are growing up around the names and symbols that are degrading to the Native American community. Young adults are being familiarized with such racism which is subconsciously teaching youth that these terms are not offensive and common to use. The powerhouse corporation Adidas has even announced an initiative aimed at helping high schools nationwide remove Native American mascots and symbolism from their sports teams (Mormann). In turn, the company is offering its design resources to any schools willing to adopt a new identity. The company is also offering financial assistance, in case the change in apparel and logo is cost-prohibitive (Mormann).

Another reason why these offensive team names should be eradicated is because of the mental health effects. Though one might not think of racism as factors in health, the science tells us otherwise. It impacts the physical, emotional and psychological health of people, especially children. More specifically, research shows deep psychological consequences caused by the continuation of American Indian stereotypes, whether they are deemed “offensive” or not. As University of Washington researcher Stephanie Fryberg and colleagues found, “American Indian mascots are harmful because they remind American Indians of the limited ways others see them and, in this way, constrain how they can see themselves” (Besser).

Simply put, I believe that any team that uses Native American heritage for team branding should change its name and logo. Terms such as “Redskin” and mascots such as K.A.A. Gents are seen as racist and offensive to the Native American community as a whole. It has negative effects on the mental health of the community, and it’s teaching younger generations that it’s okay to use these terms freely. Furthermore, the stats show that ten percent of the community finds such branding to be offensive, which even led to the formation of a campaign dedicated to their removal. The only argument that ownership provides to protestors is that they are celebrating or honouring the Native American heritage. Although, the ways in which they supposedly honour their heritage is done offensively and inappropriately. So, what changes if you change the name? The team history doesn’t disappear. The wins and losses stay the same. The team’s colours don’t have to be altered. Some fans will be upset, others will celebrate. At the end of the day, you’re disassociating racial slurs with your team legacy and all of your fans will still tune-in to support your team regardless of the name.  

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