Updated: Apr 4, 2020
By: Ryan Fremeau
Imagine turning on SportsCenter and checking the scores from last night’s game of the Baltimore “Blackskins” versus the New York “Jews”. Those names would never exist in our society today but they are directly comparable to the way Native Americans are used to represent sports teams. Frankly the images and names that are derived from the Native Americans and used to represent sports teams are stereotypical caricatures of the group. The NFL team in Washington has a name that is a blatant racial slur, which would not be tolerated if it referenced African-Americans or other minorities in the same way. The Cleveland Indians have a logo that has long been an exaggerated cartoon image of Native American men. The Atlanta Braves only recently retired their “screaming Indian” logo, which portrayed a similarly stereotypical image of a Native with his head cocked back, intended to mimic a war cry.
Traditionally the use of Native American names and symbols are defended as “historical” and “part of a legacy”. It has been said that the term “redskins” originates from the Beothuk tribe, who were said to paint their bodies with red ochre, leading white settlers to refer to them as “red men” (Gandhi). However, it’s important to note that this tribe was concentrated in Newfoundland, Canada, which is at least 500 miles away from the northernmost part of Maine. Sourcing a name from a tribe so far away raises questions of how legitimate that explanation is. Others have referenced examples of American Indians calling themselves “red-skins” like Ives Goddard who wrote “I Am A Red-Skin”, which addresses the use of the term from 1769-1826. Goddard defines the term as a non-offensive American idiom that was used by the Native Americans amongst themselves. Unfortunately, Goddard does not examine the late 19th and early 20th centuries where the term took on its derogatory meaning, even being used in an announcement in a Minnesota newspaper in 1863 publicizing bounties had increased to $200 for “every red-skin sent to Purgatory” (Winona Daily Republican 2).
This controversy is not unique to football. In 1915, the then “Cleveland Naps” needed a new team name after losing their namesake player and thus the Cleveland Indians were born. The name referenced the nickname “Indians” that was applied to the Cleveland Spiders baseball club whose star player was Native American (Wikipedia). That may briefly appear as an honor to the Native Indians but it was certainly not. Thirty years after the name change, the Indians introduced their mascot who later evolved into Chief Wahoo. This mascot was a caricature depiction of a Native American man with a large nose, a big toothy smile that took up half of his face, and a feather sticking out of the back of his head. ESPN’s Bomani Jones wore a parody T-shirt on television that imitated the Indians logo but was replaced with the word “Caucasians” and a more befitting caricature (seen below). Responses from upset viewers poured in, but if you aren’t offended by one how can you be offended by the other?
Many attempt to defend these images as honorable but these mascots are based off of the characterization of people as stereotypes, which is inherently offensive. The images create over-simplified and historically inaccurate views of the Natives. These are examples of micro-aggressions, or everyday insults that members of marginalized minority groups are subject to. The names and images we use in sports to represent Native Americans advertise them as wild savages and promote very little, if any, beneficial characteristics of the people. They are a minority group, which means that a majority of the population has limited interaction with them and therefore solely having these images flood the media perpetuates prejudices and cultural bias.
Significant research has been done looking at how the use of Native Americans in branding affects revenues. There are a large number of people who have publicly rescinded their support of these teams but it has not been enough to require the teams to make changes. Lewis and Tripathi of Emory University performed in-depth research and calculations to determine if teams were losing money by not changing their mascots. They found that the race-based mascots do in fact have a negative effect on a teams’ brand equity. The Washington football team is estimated to be losing 1.6 million dollars per year while the MLB, notably Cleveland and Atlanta, are losing an estimated 2.6 million dollars a year (Tripathi). While that is only a piece of the revenue that these teams bring in it is a significant amount and those numbers are only expected to grow as awareness grows.
In light of the recent uproars against using Native Americans as mascots, many people have made changes to their own behavior, hoping it will provoke change overall. Many outlets, including The Washington Post, have refused to use the name “Redskins” in their publications(Shin). Some journalists have followed suit including ESPN’s Bomani Jones who refuses to name the Washington football team both in his television appearances and on his daily three-hour radio show. In 2016 Parliament has requested that the name be changed or a different team be sent to London to play the annual NFL game there(Letter to Goodell). For the last 8 years of his 23 year career, NFL referee Mike Carey requested not to officiate any more Redskins games because he no longer felt comfortable doing so(Wise). This list continues, even on to the US Patent Office cancelling the “Redskins” trademark for the second time(Rovell). Unfortunately, it is not enough just to use the names and images less frequently. A new era of consciousness has evolved where Americans demand inclusivity alongside diversity, and these teams are being left behind. They must completely rid their brand of these derogatory images and names.