Politically Correct Sports Mascots
Some team mascots have been called politically incorrect. Here is a sampling of the arguments that have been made, with my take inserted, then progressing on to a survey of some of the more curious examples of team symbols.
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The Washington Redskins. There, I’ve said it. Now, I’m one who thinks political correctness often goes way too far and is often misguided and even passive agressive, but I can’t argue that this one is not objectionable. It refers directly to a minority group and actually identifies them by their skin color. It’s pejorative quality cannot be denied. Even worse, they represent the very capital of the nation. About the only apology that could be made for it is perhaps a grandfather clause. When the name was chosen, people were not really aware that the term was offensive, and now the team has been around so long that it’s a sort of traditional institution. Anyway, the point is that I can see a real problem with this team nickname. However, just about all other team mascots that have come under fire have been unfairly targeted.
One notch down from Redskins is Indians. Now this was for a long time, and still is to some extent, an official designation for a certain group of people. Of course, there is the unfortunate fact that the term was originated based on a gross inaccuracy. Real Indians live in that Asian subcontinent that Columbus failed miserably in finding. Native Americans is a much more accurate term. Of course “The Cleveland Native Americans” doesn’t exactly have a catchy ring to it. As to using ‘Indians’ as a team nickname, I’m ambivalent. Native Americans are divided on this too. Some still refer to themselves as Indians, some don’t have a strong feeling about the term one way or the other, and some find the term offensive. Some simply find it offensive to be the icon for a sports team at all, having to rub elbows with Bears and Jets and Avalanche (no plural). They often point out that other types of people are not represented in this way. Of course, this is far from the truth. Oh, there are no teams called the Whities or Honkies or Spics, but there are dozens of teams like the Boston Celtics, St. Mary’s Gaels, Vanderbilt Commodores, Green Bay Packers. All of those nicknames refer to people in some respect. Celtics and Gaels refer to a broad cultural designation which we tend to think of as the Irish. I’m partly Irish-American, and this doesn’t disturb me in the least.
Of Hurons and Raptors and Slugs
In fact, sports mascots are almost invariably chosen because they represent some good attributes for the team to identify with. Another rationale for selecting a mascot is to pay homage to local history, such as the Wyoming Cowboys and the Portland Pilots. This is actually the rationale for many of the Indian teams, but pretty silly, if you ask me, since Indians were everywhere. Of course, in the case of tribal names, it does make sense in that geographical identity area. And when you deal with the names of tribes, suddenly the aspect of permission comes into play. There’s no one authority which can speak for all Native Americans, but in the case of a tribe, they each have an official tribal leadership body. The Florida State Seminoles have official permission to use the name, and I have seen them targeted vehemently by the politically correct bunch. There may be other teams who do not have permission, but I haven’t seen any media mention of it. There are the Central Michigan Chippewas and the Eastern Michigan Hurons, among others. If they were requested to change by the tribal leadership, I’d agree that they should do it. Some Indians teams have changed, like Stanford. They are now the Cardinal. Not the Cardinals, but the color Cardinal. I suppose they anticipated political attacks from Audubon groups. I predict animal rights groups will soon get involved in this arena. The Michigan Wolverines will have to be referred to as Carnivorous Americans.
The student body of the new University of California – Santa Cruz campus, in the environmentally enlightened early ’70s voted to name their school mascot the Banana Slugs. This PR for the endangered species has probably aided in the protection efforts for it. The next step could be naming teams for extinct species, like the Dover Dodos. Well actually, it’s already been done, witness the Toronto Raptors. Well, it’s a bit of a misnomer. It’s intended to refer to the velociraptor dinosaurs of Jurassic Park fame, but technically, the term raptor refers to any bird of prey, including the quite contemporary ones.
From the Usual to the Unique
Some team names are common, uncontroversial and boring. My favorite team is the Fresno State Bulldogs. The name is so common that there is another Bulldogs team in the same conference (Louisiana Tech). Other common ones: Wildcats, Cougars, Tigers, Lions, Bears, Broncos, etc. I have a soft spot for the unique ones. The Vanderbilt Commodores are named after a naval rank, and a strictly wartime rank, at that. The Wake Forest Demon Deacons never cease to amuse me: a contradition in terms, a deacon being a kind of church official, so presumably a holy man, and of course a demon represents evil. Perhaps they have some arcane connection with the Duke Blue Devils.
A candidate for the greatest nickname of all time is the Georgetown Hoyas. I love this one because it is based on a linguistic joke. The story is that when the first athletic team at the university was the baseball team, late in the nineteenth century, most of the students had to study Latin or Classical Greek, or both. These clever scholars liked to cheer “hoya saxa!” at their team, which was a combination of a Latin term and a Greek term and meant “what rocks!” (This was presumably a positive term.)
Another one that appeals to me, purely because it has a literary genesis, is the Baltimore Ravens. This, of course, is an homage to one of the most famous denizens of Baltimore past, the dark bard himself, Edgar Allen Poe.
Of course, you can avoid all debate about political correctness by simply not naming your team, as they do in European football (soccer). “What’s your team called?” “Manchester United.” “Yeah, but the Manchester United what?” “Well, they’re the Manchester United footballers, Man U. for short.” They don’t need no stinking mascots, they’ve got hooligans.