Too much fuss over team names

An age-old distinction in understanding human behavior is that of motives versus actions. Most people realize that the wrong thing can be done for the right reasons.

Such is the case in the ongoing campaign against Indian names and logos for athletic teams. Protesters have targeted the Washington Redskins, the Atlanta Braves, the Cleveland Indians. My own dearly beloved alma mater, Stanford University, changed its "Indian" motif years ago, to a mere color (the "Cardinal") and the unofficial mascot of a Ponderosa pine. (Is it any wonder I give my donor cash to the Stanford Review instead?) Two weeks ago, a Native American scholar spoke here, urging students to take an active role in eliminating such icons.

The motives behind such efforts seem clear enough. Opponents of names like the Braves claim that such names promote negative stereotypes, furthering racism and hindering true understanding of Native American culture. They also claim that the names and symbols are themselves demeaning and insulting to Indians, asking how names like the "Kansas City Jews" or the "Pittsburgh Negroes" might make people feel.

The goal, then, is to eliminate racial stereotypes, promote understanding of culture and history, and thereby reduce racism. But despite the obvious virtue of the goal, trying to erase the Redskins and company is the wrong path to take.

First, there are more serious Native American problems than team names. Alcoholism, low achievement and hopelessness are rampant on many reservations, and I doubt the demise of the Braves would affect that very much. Breaking the cycle of government dependency and raising educational standards, for instance, seem far more important than arguing over mascots. I agree that these things are much harder to accomplish, but then they are far more fundamental.

But why not also try to remove the mascots? If their presence is one more reason for Native American troubles, an insult making it just a little harder for Indians to achieve, then shouldn't they have to go?

I have three reasons for disagreeing. First, traditions are not easily broken, particularly those of team names. Loyalties are tightly bound to the names, and no team will part lightly with the loyalty of its fans (unless, of course, it plays in the surreal dream world of today's campus). Hence the campaign will drain energies that could be much better spent.

Second, success is not meant to be easy. Americans are far too prone today to demand the removal of obstacles instead of simply climbing over them. To insist that the mascots will hinder Native Americans seems to belittle Native American ability. A better message to send the next generation is that through character virtues like persistence, faith, and courage, they can overcome the racists in society (who, by the way, will never disappear).

Very well, you may say. But it is still wrong in and of itself for Americans to use names like the Redskins. An insult may not do serious harm, but it is still an insult and therefore must go.

This leads up to the third point: that the Indian team names are not meant to be insults at all. Quite the opposite is true. Like all team names, they are meant to connote winning qualities for sports speed, strength, stamina, courage, toughness. Pick any example. The Dolphins (swiftness, grace, intelligence). The Cowboys (hardiness, strength, bravery). The Bengals (power, ferocity, beauty). Moreover, no one ever notices any potentially negative connotations (as in the Pirates or the Raiders). The rare exceptions, like the Fighting Banana Slugs from somewhere in California, are humorous precisely because of their contrast with the usual names. Thus, the "Kansas City Jews" would be a poor name for a team, but the "Stuyvesant Sabras," for a women's team, might work well. (A sabra, if my memory serves, was a woman fighter for Israeli independence.)

It makes no sense at all for a team to name itself after a group it doesn't like and respect, and even less sense to pick a group the fans don't like and respect. This means that names like the Fighting Irish, the Vikings, the Braves, the Seminoles, and the Redskins are not insults but a form of tribute to the perceived winning attributes of such groups. And yes, I suppose these are stereotypes, but they are decidedly positive ones in the context of sports.

Thus, I see no problem with "ethnic" team names. In fact, it seems the really annoying thing is not to have a team named after you. Like me, for instance. In fact, I demand that the Phoenix Suns be renamed the Phoenix Welsh-French-Texan-Germans! Really. It's the least they can do.

John Keisling is a Welsh-French-Texan-German-American math Ph.D. candidate whose column appears Wednesdays.

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