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Op-Ed

Sports Teams: Why Majority Doesn’t Make the Rules

Abraham H. Foxman
National Director of the Anti-Defamation League

This article originally appeared in The Huffington Post on October 22, 2013

There’s been a lot of talk about sports lately, though not all having to do with the game itself.

Something disconcerting brings sports into the limelight that sullies the positive spirit of inclusiveness in our nation’s favorite pastimes.   

Recently, in an interview with The Associated Press, President Obama said that if he were owner of the Washington Redskins, he would consider changing the team’s name because it offends “a sizeable group of people.”

This interview brought the president considerable backlash from many who believe that the ostensibly harmless team name should remain in place, for tradition’s sake.  Among the outraged individuals was the team’s attorney, Lanny Davis, who assured the president that in a national sample from 2004, “9 out of 10 Native Americans said they were not bothered by the name,” and that another showed 8 out of 10 Americans “don’t think the Washington Redskins’ name should be changed.”

Mr. Davis' assertion that the majority of Americans are not bothered by the use of the term is not relevant. He hasn’t considered that, in the words of Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird: “The one thing that doesn't abide by majority rule is a person's conscience.”

The issue at hand is not the apparent popularity of the team name in question, but the very real and offensive stereotypes that the team name is associated with — regardless of its shift into the mainstream.

We’ve come a long way since the early 20th century, when many great American sports franchises were first named and offensive caricatures of ethnic minorities were widespread in popular culture.

Today, offensive caricatures are no longer prevalent, public figures cannot utter ethnic slurs without repercussions, and numerous college sports teams have moved away from names that evoke negative stereotypes.

And yet, a vestige of that insensitive tradition remains.

The official mascot of the Cleveland Indians is a beet-red Native American named “Chief Wahoo,” whose toothy grin is mass-produced on tchotchkes and sports merchandise. At Redskins games, fans display team pride by wearing feather headdresses — traditional regalia of Native American tribes that were all but wiped out by colonialism.

Hanging on to these symbols demonstrates an unconscious disregard for the values of inclusion, pluralism, and equality that American sports have come to represent.

The decision to rename a team is not made out of some baseless attempt at political correctness. It is made with serious intent and thoughtful consideration of peoples’ history and culture. If the social implications of a particular word are not apparent to the majority, this does not justify its use or diminish its hurtful connotations. 

Recall that at one point in American history, blackface was an acceptable form of entertainment. Can we delude ourselves into thinking that the individuals mocked by this crass display were consoled by the fact that it was part of mainstream culture?

In striving for a solution, let’s not let the debate devolve into demagoguery, as delicate matters such as these often tend to. In a recent editorial cartoon for the New York Daily News titled "Archaic Symbols of Pride and Heritage,” Tom Stiglich juxtaposed three symbols with sharply contrasting meanings: the swastika, the confederate flag, and the official logo of the Washington Redskins.

The cartoon, righteous in its intent, was designed to startle and draw attention to the issue —which it did, though perhaps not in the way Stiglich hoped.

Using an analogy to Nazi symbolism is not only misguided and tactless, but sheds more heat than light on the matter. Team names such as Redskins and Indians are insensitive, but insensitivity is not tantamount to the evil intent associated with use of the swastika.

While it is not the intention of the fans, owners or leaders of sports franchises to offend, teams like the Washington Redskins and the Cleveland Indians have a responsibility to be sensitive to the legitimate hurt that offensive names, mascots and logos cause.

Sports culture in America is intertwined with tradition, and while tradition certainly matters, it should not justify the perpetuation of offensive names and mascots. A name change will not impact how a team fares on the field, or in the standings.

Let us not allow ourselves to be swayed by an alleged faceless majority. Let us be smarter, wiser, and more mindful of the fact that words matter, and popularity doesn’t change meaning.

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"Sports culture in America is intertwined with tradition, and while tradition certainly matters, it should not justify the perpetuation of offensive names and mascots. A name change will not impact how a team fares on the field, or in the standings."

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