Racist Team Names: A Call to Athletes

John Guenther

This is a call to athletes to step up and tell sports owners what your personal beliefs are, and refuse to continue to support a racist name. You know who you are and you need to take this very seriously. I recently heard Richard Sherman from the Seattle Seahawks state that the NFL should not have a team named after a skin color; thank you Mr. Sherman.

Now all athletes need to step up and let the owners and the fans know this is no longer going to be acceptable. You need to be leaders; if you can lead a team you can step out and lead in life. What is going to happen? Are you going to lose an endorsement? Do you really think our forefathers who have helped fight for civil rights were worried about how much money they were going to make? As far as fans go, you can be the most loyal fans and still support a name change. Don’t underestimate your power. It is time for a change, no more talk.

Clearly the two most famous violators of consciousness are the Washington Redskins and the Cleveland Indians. The Redskins were a team that refused to racially integrate; they would not allow non-white players to play for the team until they were threatened with Federal intervention. The Redskins were the last team to employee minority players; the team under threat of civil rights actions from the Kennedy Administration integrated and drafted Ernie Davis, the first African American to win the Heisman Trophy. He was traded to the Cleveland Browns but the Redskins finally began to draft minority players to play with the team.

The true issue is; many believe that Indian people should be honored by these mascots, but we are not. It doesn’t matter what the majority feels either, at one time the majority of America was in favor of slavery. It also doesn’t matter that a team can find a tribal member to support their name, what solely matters is, is it right or wrong? The Redskins used to be called the Braves prior to moving to DC from Boston. The team has a long history of going against the tide, when race is an issue.

The trademark issue of teams like the Redskins is moving forward in the courts. The Redskin’s position will be, it is an illegal seizing of property, but it is not as many trademarks have been changed and without the loss of income. I received a Master’s degree from a school that was formerly named the ‘Savages’ and is now called the Eagles. They are able to market and sell their product just fine. The court needs to ask themselves this, if the Redskins lose, and their name/logo/trademarks are not protected, would they on their principle continue to "honor" tribal members? They would not, due to the massive amount of money they would lose, they would change their name.

The Cleveland Indians long held connection to Chief Wahoo is also objectionable. Many do not know this but originally Chief Wahoo was painted yellow, later to be changed to red. Speaking for the team, Bob DiBiasio stated, in reference to Chief Wahoo, he was “not meant to represent anyone or any group.” Clearly it represents Indians, it is a cartoon characterization of Indian people and Indian people should be honored? I am not honored by Chief Wahoo.

Can you imagine if this were another culture? Can you imagine a name like the ‘Blackies’ and people actually painting their face and attempted to act ‘black’? Look at what occurred with Donald Sterling from the Clippers and how quickly everyone was offended and became involved in what was a racist rant by a racist man. The athletes even protested, thank you to all the team members; but to do that for Indian people? That would take leadership.

Here are some common sense rules in dealing with teams and mascots:

1. Avoid a mascot/team name with skin color as part of the name/mascot.

2. Avoid names like, Indian, Braves, Chiefs, and Savages; as those are negatively focused stereotypes of one culture.

3. Avoid doing fake war cries, and having the audience learn them.

4. Avoid selling fake feathers, and fake Indian regalia, painting faces in a false attempt to look Indian.

5. Avoid naming yourself after a specific Tribe, unless you have specific permission from the Tribal leadership.

6. Avoid any person playing a mascot that is non-Indian that may ride around on a horse, and pretends to be Indian.

7. Avoid characterizations that depict Indian people negatively, such as cartoon characters.

8. Avoid any demeaning mascots meant to put Indian people in a submissive role.

If you are part of a non-Native team that has taken on one of these negative stereotypes then the time to change is now. Don’t do a poll, don’t ask a Native American to support your cause, be a leader. This is an issue that crosses political lines; both Democrats and Republicans need to feel free to join this fight and both should. This is not political correctness gone wild, list any other culture and start to negatively project these images and they will step up immediately. Why not stand for Indian people? Stop complicating the facts and stand with a culture that needs the support of everyone. If you are an owner or a school board member, quietly change the name; don’t get everyone involved in a controversy. 

This is a call to fans, political leaders, religious leaders, educators, business people, but especially athletes. Where are you athletes? Where is your pride? Stand up against a clearly racist agenda, a team not wanting to change their name because of money. Indian people are not honored; we believe it should be changed. Take this message as a message to get involved, talk to your owners and to the public. The tide is turning against racism; the time to get involved is now. Athletes, stand for what is right.

John Guenther has been involved in civil rights for more than 25 years and is an Aleut from Alaska; he wrestled in college in the 1980’s. 

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