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From the archives of From A to Zowie: Sports nicknames

This has been one of my favorite columns, partly because while it was eventually published in my hometown newspaper the Beeville Bee-Picayune, it was originally rejected for publication by one liberal editor. He felt it was too politically-incorrect and tried to write a counter-column to show me his viewpoint.

The column was about how absurd it can get to change sports names every time someone complains of being offended. The school in question was the San Antonio high school Sam Houston Cherokees, who changed their name to the Hurricanes due to complaints their name was offensive towards Native Americans. Never mind that Sam Houston lived among Cherokees and later became an advocate of Native American rights, and never mind the name was intended to honor rather insult.

So, this editor’s counter-column argued that naming a team the Cherokees was tantamount to naming teams after racially divisive terms for Asians, African-Americans and so forth.

Yeah, riiiiiiiiiiiight.

So, here’s the column:

 Richard’s Ramblings

Native American mascots: toss the tasteless, keep the dignified

By Richard Zowie

For the past decade or so, one of the most controversial topics in sports—besides performance-enhancing drugs, gambling and sloppy officiating—has been whether or not teams should be allowed to use Native American nicknames.

This summer, the NCAA plans to hold various meetings to determine whether those of its colleges with Native American mascots can still continue to do so. They’ll make a final decision when the NCAA’s 17-member Executive Committee meets in August.

Some of the nicknames in the spotlight include the Florida State Seminoles and the Utah Utes. In other sports and at the professional level, other hot-button names include the Washington Redskins, Kansas City Chiefs, Atlanta Braves and Chicago Blackhawks. In San Antonio high school football, there’s the Antonian Apaches. Across Texas, many high schools have mascots with Native American themes, such as Warriors and Chiefs.

Some teams have already changed their names, and often times it is for the better. A few years ago, St. John’s University in New York ditched its Redmen mascot and is now known as the Red Storm. To me, “Red Man” is a derogatory term comparable to calling an Asian person “Yellow Man”. It’s also comparable to Washington’s “Redskin” mascot, which seems to draw attention to the skin color.

For some teams, the name change can be ridiculous. A few years ago in San Antonio, Sam Houston High School caved into political pressure and dumped its Cherokee nickname, never mind the fact that Houston spent considerable time with the Cherokees growing up and as an adult, even becoming a Cherokee citizen and marrying a Cherokee woman. He also reportedly served the Cherokees as an advisor, trader and special envoy. Houston said this about Native Americans: “I am aware that in presenting myself as the advocate of the Indians and their rights, I shall stand very much alone.”

Despite this, Sam Houston’s now the Hurricanes, an oddity given how landlocked San Antonio is. The name would fit better if SHHS were located in Corpus Christi, Galveston or some other town along the Gulf Coast.

While I’ve known two Native Americans (a Chippewa and an Apache) who said they weren’t offended by the nicknames, there are indeed many Native Americans who feel the nicknames are racist or insensitive. That being said, this poses the question: should a school or sports organization be required to change their mascot if the clear intention was to honor instead of caricature? Some sports teams use Native American names to honor the Native Americans who lived in that area. The University of Utah, for example, uses the nickname “Ute” to honor that state’s Native American heritage.

While I’m not for the wholesale dumping of all Native American nicknames, I do feel there are some nicknames and even logos that should be replaced. Names like Redskins and Redmen border on racism and stereotyping. I see them as the equivalent of the n-word for African-Americans or the g-word for Asian-Americans. Calling a Native American a savage, in my estimation, is an offensive stereotype assuming that any Native American you meet is out to scalp you.

As for logos, I dislike the one the Cleveland Indians use. Those who follow baseball are familiar with the red-faced, toothy, wide grin. To me, it’s the same as the images a generation ago of Asians wearing thick, coke-bottle glasses and having buck teeth. Supposedly, the Indians chose their name to honor their Native American player Louis Sockalexis, a Penobscot Indian who excelled as a hitter in his brief Major League career. Historians differ; some argue that the nickname was likely intended to exploit Sockalexis’ success (the Native American was subjected to racist taunts, war whoops and war dances by opposing fans). If the Indians really want to convince me their nickname is intended to honor Sockalexis, then they can start by ditching the offensive logo and going with something dignified.

That being said, if the NCAA decides to prohibit all schools from using any nicknames or logos patterned after Native Americans, will it really stop there? How long will it take for political correctness to seep past normal concerns and cultivate into what’s truly ridiculous?

Who knows, before long…

…the animal rights crowd will petition teams like the Michigan Wolverines, Texas Longhorns, Florida Gators and the California Golden Bears to change their names.

…the anti-Christopher Columbus crowd will lobby teams that use nicknames honoring pillaging explorers, like the Minnesota Vikings and Portland Trail Blazers, to change their names.

…the environmental crowd might even weigh in and demand that teams like the Minnesota Wild, San Francisco 49ers and Denver Nuggets change their names. They might not even like the names symbolizing industry, such as the Purdue Boilermakers or Pittsburgh Steelers.

…the anti-war crowd might even complain about names like the University of Massachusetts Minutemen while those who oppose the Patriot Act might want the New England Patriots to change their name.

…who knows, perhaps even atheists might even sound off about how the New Orleans Saints mascot discriminates against those in The Big Easy who practice voodoo.

…for those who oppose space exploration and feel we should focus on earth issues, maybe they might get upset about the Houston Astros and Houston Rockets.

…for those who feel that all references to the Confederacy need to be erased, the northeastern Louisiana high school football team West Monroe Rebels and the University of Mississippi Rebels would be pressured to change their names. Also, wasn’t the term “Yankee” a derogatory term used to describe northerners? Shouldn’t the New York Yankees change their nickname to their unofficial one, the Bronx Bombers? Wait! Bomber implies war, and it’s not politically correct to glorify war. Never mind.

For now, the best thing the NCAA and other athletic organizations should do is set guidelines to determine what is truly offensive and distinguish that from what’s intended to honor, to represent or what’s intended to be a harmless image. Once that’s done, they can focus on the much more pressing issues in college football. You know:

Athletes who blow off class and treat their college scholarship as little more than prep time to get ready for the pros.

Athletes who have their homework and research papers done by someone else.

Athletes involved in criminal activity.

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  1. jay
    September 15, 2009 at 10:50 am

    I’ve been a Redskin fan my entire life and when I was young I thought that it was a great warrior chief that was strong and clever- I was horrified later in my teens to discover that it meant something completely different- Can they just change the name to pigskins, HOGS or perhaps the Washington Generals? There’s several names that Washingtonians could get behind…. like the Capitols, the foggy bottoms? the union, etc….

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