Sports teams grapple with offensive mascots

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For almost 10 years the NCAA has been leading the fight to change racist and offensive mascots, and now U.S. senators are getting involved with the NFL, asking that the Washington Redskins change the team’s name.

A letter signed by 50 senators was released in late May that said, “Today, we urge you and the National Football League to send the same clear message the NBA did: that racism and bigotry have no place in professional sports,” the letter said. “It’s time for the NFL to endorse a name change.”

Washington Redskins players DeSean Jackson and Robert Griffin III sign autographs for military personnel after a summer workout. The team mascot has been under fire of activists and law makers. (AP photo)
Washington Redskins players DeSean Jackson and Robert Griffin III sign autographs for military personnel after a summer workout. The team mascot has been under fire of activists and law makers. (AP photo)

The tradition of using Native American tribes or nicknames as mascots is an issue that has been debated at all levels of sports. From the NFL, MLB and NBA all the way down to high schools, sports programs around the country are trading in controversial mascots for those that don’t offend.

In 2005, then NCAA President Myles Brand issued a “self evaluation” to 31 colleges to examine their choice of mascot and the potential of offensive imagery. Eventually 19 of the schools either changed their Indian names, received permission from supporting tribes or eliminated offensive images.

Some schools such as the University of Utah were able to strike deals with related Native American tribes. In April 2014, university officials and the Ute Indian Tribe agreed to maintain the “Runnin’ Ute” title for school sports teams in exchange for increased recruiting and financial help for the Ute tribal members. Other schools willingly changed, and some were unable to receive permission

“With every sensitive issue it’s hard to keep everyone happy; some people want tradition, while others will be offended,” said Marcus Chen, Associated Students of the University of Utah, or ASUU, senate chair. “The university will always do what is in the best interest of the university.”

The University of North Dakota, on the other hand, was one of the schools that could not reach an agreement with their Native American affiliation. Now after a two-thirds vote in favor of dropping its mascot’s name “The Fighting Sioux,” the school is officially relinquishing the moniker for the third and final time. The school is in a cooling-off period while it selects a new mascot. In the meantime, teams play without a designated mascot.

Peter Johnson, executive associate VP for university relations for the University of North Dakota, said, “It’s tough to change anything you’ve done your whole life. Ultimately it came down to a desire to cheer for the team, not the team’s name.”

When it comes to professional sports the NBA has been a leading example of fighting racism, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said recently. According to NBA.com in 1971 the Golden State Warriors kept their name but changed their logo from a Native American man to an image of the city; and though not racist, in 1995 the Washington Bullets became the Washington Wizards to avoid violent overtones and to not offend.

Speaking on April 30, at the Senate Floor and referring to the NFL team the Washington Redskins, Reid said, “It is untoward of Daniel Snyder (owner of the team) to try to hide behind tradition. Tradition? That’s what he says in refusing to change the name of the team. Tradition? What tradition? A tradition of racism is all that name leaves in its wake.”

Reid’s statement came as call to action to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to follow NBA commissioner Adam Silver’s lead, when he banned Donald Sterling, the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, for life after a recording of him saying racist remarks was made public. Silver proclaimed that racism has no spot in sports.

In response to Sterling’s remarks, Silver said at an NBA news conference, “Sentiments of this kind are contrary to the principles of inclusion and respect that form the foundation of our diverse, multicultural and multiethnic league.”

While some sports teams still have mascots that many find offensive and claim changing the name will affect their brand, other teams such as the Stanford Cardinals are proof that eventually people will forget.

“The mascot issue is another example of how … athletics rightfully plays a catalytic role in social change. Decades from now, I predict, we will look back and wonder why we ever tolerated such behaviors,” Brand said. “We should not underestimate the potential of athletics to contribute to social change, nor should we shy away from that responsibility.”

 

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