Shakespeare could wax poetic about ‘What’s in a Name?’ because he didn’t have to contend with sports mascots …
It’s the politically-correct issue in America that refuses to subside. I consider myself to be an enlightened cyberbeing, but I contend there are just some topics that blur the bigger picture of an ethically responsible society, and complaining that mascots can be degrading is near the top of the list.
A quick check of Webster’s Twentieth Century Unabridged Dictionary defines ‘mascot’ as ‘any person, animal or thing supposed to bring good luck by being present.’ So, it would seem that a team mascot is an honorable title. Most mascots in American sports had their origins in the early 1900s. Back then, teams fumbled around with quaint monickers until they gradually realized the tremendous marketing value they carried. The New York Highlanders became the more regionally-identifiable Yankees, for instance, and the Chicago Cubs took their nickname so newspaper editors could more easily fit it into headlines. Distinguished symbols like Tigers and Giants appeared. Unique features like White Stockings and Red Stockings evolved into the more headline-friendly and spelling-special White Sox and Red Sox.
One of the earliest attempts at humor in mascot-anointing was made by the Brooklyn nine of baseball’s National League. Urban legend wasn’t a known phrase back then, but it farily describes the allusion to fans who ‘dodged’ trolley fares to get a free ride to Ebbetts Field and watch the game. Those ‘bums’ were called Dodgers, and their favorite team became christened as such.
Ironically, that drift toward the whimsical — probably intended to portray sports in its proper context as a divertissement of life — may have been the root of indignation two generations later.
The social upheavals of the 1960s and early 1970s were certainly justified, in my view. Civil rights needed to come to the fore, and the resultant improvement in how all peoples were perceived was a great step forward for mankind. Still, there’s a difference between significant awareness and pedantic perception in any movement. Thus, in my view, when certain Native Americans first raised the mascot controversy in headlines of the time, the attention afforded was only due to its being sucked into the backdraft of searing human rights campaigns.
Personally, I’ve always thought the issue had as much relevance to their legitimate concerns as bra-burning did for women’s rights.
Think about it. Native Americans aren’t alone in being designated as mascots. In accordance with Webster’s Dictionary definition, other persons given the distinction include the Irish (University of Notre Dame) and Scandinavians (Minnesota Vikings). Both of these ethnic groups endured their moments of discrimination in the annals of American history, too. So far, neither has mounted a protest about being characterized as a good luck symbol for a sporting organization.
Don’t even try to broach the ‘caricature’ argument as a reason why the Native American situation is different. Perhaps Notre Dame uses a leprechaun logo now, but the term ‘Fighting Irish’ was a clear reference to barroom brawlers, a stereotypical low-life trait at which immigrants from the Emerald Isle were perceived to be quite proficient. As to the Scandinavians, there is no evidence that even one Viking was ever so dim as to go into battle with a set of heavy horns on his helmet; why would any warrior charge into a kill-or-be-killed scenario wearing anything that could directly impede his ability to win? (The image of horns came from priests’ drawings of Viking attacks, attempting to equate them to the Devil incarnate, and it was Wagner who popularized this image when he staged his epic Ring of the Niebelung.)
Cleveland’s baseball team sorted through a number of mascots in their early days. ‘Spiders’ just didn’t have that ‘je ne sais crois’ of marketing sizzle. They were the ‘Naps’ for a while, in honor of their star player-manager, Napoleon Lajoie. So, when they finally settled on ‘Indians’ in correlation to one of their first star players — Louis Sockalexis, a Native American — the monicker may not have begun as a tribute to him, but it has since memorialized his legacy. The evidence indicates the term was derogatorily applied to all members of the Cleveland team in the 1890s because it dared to have the fortitude to allow an Indian to play for them. Since then, Sockalexis has been recognized as being as much of a pioneer for minority involvement in major sports as the great Jackie Robinson was fifty years later.
Yes, the team uses a caricature of a Native American as its logo now. In fact, Chief Wahoo is perenially one of the hottest-selling logos on sports merchandise. It far outsells the NHL’s Columbus Blue Jackets orginal logo, which is honoring the valiant Ohio battalion that fought so honorably in the Civil War. We haven’t heard historical societies from that great state howling with indignation that this is done by putting a green insect in a Union soldier’s uniform. Instead, the odds are they’re pleased that more of the North American public has become aware of the Blue Jacket history than ever before, just as the Cleveland Indians can keep alive the memory of Sockalexis. Some protestors say Chief Wahoo has ‘shifty’ eyes and that makes him even more demeaning. I, for one, never drew that connection, but if anyone else did, why wouldn’t they be laughing and demeaning the Oklahoma University Sooners? After all, that term originally implied cheaters getting a jump on staking claims to land being opened for settlement.
There are many more examples. I simply don’t see Native Americans being unduly isolated in this context, and no one else involved is feeling belittled.
The Washington Redskins originated in Boston, home of baseball’s Red Sox and Braves in the 1930s. They were also called the Braves back then, because they played in that team’s stadium. However, when they wound up getting better terms to locate in Fenway Park, they didn’t want to confuse the paying public by being Braves but playing in the Red Sox stadium. Their solution made sense: they incorporated references to their origins and their new game site by changing their name to Redskins. The logic apparently didn’t register with enough fans, though, and the team soon exited to the nation’s capital.
The point here is that the Redskins name wasn’t derived as a slur, but as a facilitation to distinguish the team’s new — albeit transitional — home. Furthermore, to be fair, the Redskins organization has only used a noble image as a symbol of the name. Washington DC is one of the most liberal cities in North America, with its population’s majority consisting of minorities. The connotation of that nickname being demeaning, as in the Cleveland Indians case, just doesn’t emerge from its context.
My impression, then, remains that the mascot controversy has its sole value in the publicity it gives those organizations who are raising it. Pro and college sports are more visible than ever in the USA, and what better way is there to affix one’s organization to higher ‘page rankings’ than making headlines in the Sports section of newspapers and broadcasts?
The matter isn’t going away anytime soon. Now the NCAA — college sports’ governing body — has decreed that any university with a Native American mascot can neither host a championship event nor use their mascot in any championship event. Some schools have successfully been granted exceptions, which makes even less sense to me. Does this mean that Florida State’s Seminoles, for example, are less demeaning to Native Americans than North Dakota’s Fighting Sioux (a traditional college hockey power)? How hypocritical is that? If they’re contending that degrees of discrimination exist due to local circumstances, then they’re admitting to a targeted sensitivity beyond society’s pale, which is discriminatory in itself. How can such a position be rationalized with a clear conscience?
Mascots, no matter how commercialized, are still nothing more than whimsical symbols. Society as a whole understands that, just as it realizes the stylized violence in Grimm’s Fairy Tales leaves no lasting scars on the psyches of children who innocently absorb them. Those who claim to the contrary only risk trivializing themselves and the credibility of their greater cause.
Nowhere in the country do such topics remain in a lighthearted perspective more than in Orofino, Idaho. That’s the site of the state’s mental hospital. The local high school’s teams are called the Maniacs.
No one protests, unless the teams don’t play hard.