What’s in a name: sports teams, mascots and racism

The Washington Redskins football team has come under fire for their name and logo.

The Washington Redskins football team has come under fire for their name and logo.

The debate surrounding potentially offensive sports team names and mascots has been raging for decades and has now taken hold in Saskatoon. One area high school, Bedford Road Collegiate Institute, is bearing the brunt of the criticism.

The school, whose team name is the Redmen and logo is a profile of a First Nations man, has come under fire.

Bedford Road graduate and current University of Saskatchewan student Erica Lee re-ignited a movement ­— which began in  1996 — to change the schools moniker and logo in 2011 when she made a Facebook page called “Bedford Road Redmen: It’s Time for a Change.”

Lee was inspired to fight for change after a teacher gave her an article about the implications behind First Nations mascots and logos.

“It’s something that I think a lot of people don’t realize, that they’re actively supporting racism,” she said. “I think that it’s just something we don’t talk about … we’re so used to things like that now so we don’t even question it.”

The Redmen aren’t the only remaining high school, collegiate, or professional sports team to bear a questionable mascot or name.

A high school in California call themselves the Coachella Valley Arabs and there are well known professional teams such as the Washington Redskins in the National Football League and the Cleveland Indians in Major League Baseball.

In total there are nine high schools that use the name Redskins in Canada and the United States and many more who use names derived from Aboriginal Peoples.

However, many teams who were once portrayed by culturally loaded mascots have changed to something more benign.

A high school in Illinois changed their name from the Pekin Chinks to the Pekin Dragons in 1980 and up until 1972 Stanford University’s mascot was the Stanford Indian. The school changed their name to the Cardinals (the colour) and their mascot to a tree.

Stanford University Ombudsperson Lois Amsterdam stated in a petition to change the mascot that “Stanford’s continued use of the Indian symbol in the 1970′s brings up to visibility a painful lack of sensitivity and awareness on the part of the University.”

Forty years later, many teams still use a similar name and logo or a variation on the theme.

In recent decades there has been a strong push to abolish harmful mascots, including an extensive policy to remove negative images established by the National Collegiate Athletic Association. Calls to change the name of the Bedford Collegiate Redmen have also been supported by various members of the University of Saskatchewan community, one of which is the Department of Education Foundations in the College of Education.

In an email sent to CTV, department head Diane Miller wrote, “The idea that such logos and mascots are positive representations of Indigenous peoples is false. These images spring from centuries-old racist discourses … The Department of Educational Foundations agrees that it is time to stop pretending that stereotyping is an honour. It is racism.”

Chief Wahoo is becoming harder to spot on the Cleveland Indians’ uniforms.

Chief Wahoo is becoming harder to spot on the Cleveland Indians’ uniforms.

No professional team has taken on a name or logo that uses racial stereotypes in name or imagery since 1963 but many pre-established images, such as the Cleveland Indians’ Chief Wahoo, continue to exist.

A common defence of fans and owners of sports teams with racially charged images is that the mascot is meant to honour the people of its likeness or  to reflect their proud history. This assumption continues to unravel as more and more individuals who are meant to be “honoured” refute this myth.

“I know that a lot of people will see Redman, Redskins, native logos as an honour but the fact is that there are more and more native people that aren’t comfortable with this representation and it can lead easily to a lot of negative stereotypes and negative images of Native American people and First Nations people,” said Lee.

It’s hard to imagine how this name can be taken as an honour when the Oxford Dictionary lists the term “Redman” as dated and offensive and is commonly seen as a racial slur. At one time, this name and others like it had less loaded meanings, but connotations have become more negative over time.

Despite being dropped from current use and Redmen being a pejorative term, many schools still feel it’s appropriate to bear on their jerseys and trophies. These names were not adopted by schools many decades ago with the intent to offend, but the cultural stereotypes they espouse should be assessed from a modern standpoint.

“People get defensive because they think we’re calling them racist but the point is that a lot of people [are] not looking at it and questioning it,” Lee said. “They’re not seeing it as a representation of people even though it’s the face of a Native American. They’ll just see it as a logo and not really as a person or as a symbol of anything.”

These names and mascots present a caricature of real, living people and cultures that are continually evolving, while the depictions rest in past stereotypes.

“One argument is that when people look at that logo, they don’t see people; they see a mascot when in reality it’s this weird sort of distorted reality of what First Nations culture is actually like,” Lee said.

Another argument against changing names and mascots is that it’s part of the team’s history and that the vast majority of fans aren’t bothered by these depictions. But more often than not, it’s people who have no cultural ties to the representations who claim they are harmless.

In the case of the Bedford Road Redmen, those who cling to the school’s proud tradition may be ignoring an entirely separate history.

“The weird part about this is that it’s a primarily white school board and Bedford Road school and teachers and students that [are] holding on to this logo and claiming it’s their tradition,” Lee said.

Other detractors say that the fight to change these names is just another in the battle for all-encompassing political correctness.

Lee sees doing away with the old as a way for First Nations people to reclaim their present and future identities.

“I think that it will show that First Nations people are reclaiming their right to represent themselves as they see fit,” she said.

As for whether or not the mascot and name at Bedford Road will eventually change, Lee is optimistic the school will adopt something that all students can be proud of.

“I think it’s coming,” she said. “I think it’s inevitable”


Photos: Keith Allison/Flickr

  • Harrison Bergeron

    clearly this is the only solution: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xr-F40mnul8

  • Zach

    It’s about time we had this conversation. A portion of my background hails from Scandinavia and I think we should let the Minnesota Vikings know how we feel about the racism that is fueled by this sub-par football club. I mean I didn’t even realize it was racist until people told me that logos and icons depicting nationalities or races was racist. But goddammit I know it now. When I watch Minnesota play i always think “shit, if they were real vikings…we would probably have a better record this season”. I mean a real Viking would have cut his &*%$ing headoff, let alone make first down. See what I mean. I bet everyone feels the same way. It’s so racist.

    But I guess I shouldn’t compare the two. After all, the Redskins logo depicts a a First Nation in what appears to be dress of some significance. This is offensive because it trivializes the ideas and sentiments held by members of the First Nation community. In fact, it trivializes the whole race! The Minnesota Vikings logo is just some Scandinavian dude with a badass moustache and helmet. Most vikings didn’t even wear helmets. I don’t wear a helmet and I can’t even grow a moustache. Even if they did, it’s inappropriate to show it because it promotes the idea that Vikings wore helmets and had badass moustaches. I know it’s not so much an idea as it is a fact but it offends me and my Scandinavian counter parts.

    The point is we need to stop referencing culture unless it can be explained in full to avoid misinterpretation. Culture is meant for libraries, museums and dry documentaries narrated by Matt Damon. Not forms of entertainment that assume we can think critically.

  • Guest

    I don’t find mascots to be offensive, but if others are so greatly bothered than go ahead and change them. It’s just a sports team anyway. The ‘Arabs’ could easily change their mascot to be an Arabian horse, which is one of the oldest and purest breeds of horse. There are teams that call themselves the Mustangs, which are a wild horse of a mix of several breeds, that are currently being rounded up with helicopters and shipped to slaughter because the North American governments want them to be extinct…. that’s honourable isn’t it? Humans seem to enjoy discriminating on every living creature alive. So change the team mascots/names/logos to something neutral but hopefully not too boring…

  • Had Enough

    WHAT A JOKE! SERIOUSLY!….. I’ve got quite a few native friends that LAUGH at this crap!….. My native friends are absolutely EMBARRASSED with how absurd claims are that keep popping up from 2000 native groups claiming they want equality when they’re demanding advantages. Make up your mind because I’m sick of explaining to my children that somehow in order to “Not Be Racist” they have to pay more money for things and get less opportunists for education, employment, and sporting activities because of the color of their skin being white. How would you feel if we made an “Any race but native” baseball team since you have your “Only natives allowed” teams. Perfect example of exploitation is the ridiculous amount of power these native groups are getting and how wasteful it is to keep using it on stuff like this! I agree that what happened to your people was terrible, BUT I WASN’T THERE FOR IT AND NEITHER WERE YOU! IF YOU WANT EQUALITY THEN LETS START WITH IT RIGHT NOW! Should every Norwegian Viking name be removed? Maybe we should talk to the Montreal Canadiens because selling Canada is racist and we’re not proud of being honored at all are we?….. Grow up and find something else to do with all the money and power you’ve taken.

    • 1234

      You are an idiot. The unfair treatment of nTives wasn’t a occur acne of years past and it is something you were there for.