Changing sports teams’ racist names is a start

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A long-running National Football League issue seems to be nearing its end, and it looks like it’ll just be the first fallen domino. Washington’s football team is finally going to get a name change from its current slur against Native Americans to… something else that hasn’t been decided yet, pending an “investigation” into their current name. But pressure from sponsors, including FedEx, which has the naming rights to Washington’s stadium, finally got the organization and owner Dan Snyder to move on changing the clearly racist name.

It’s a shame, of course, that the threat of lost money from corporate sponsors is what will get this long-awaited change to actually happen, and not Native Americans saying the name is a problem, not activists and organizers who have been on this case for much longer than should have been necessary. But then again, FedEx and co. weren’t going to move on this unless that pressure was there, either, so the “shame” here is mostly just on Snyder, who was going to be unmoved by any argument that didn’t involve his own wallet. And since there were always going to be enough fans willing to go to games and buy the merch even if everyone uncomfortable with the name never contributed a dollar, he was never going to get this ball moving.

This is probably a good place to drop this reminder that the appropriation and the racism are the point for many, and are as American as anything else you can think of:

The mascot issue is not about whether Native people have been properly polled. It is not a question of American ignorance. It’s that the people with the most power in this situation—the owners, the franchises—know exactly what they’re doing and don’t care. And in the face of much more pressing material concerns, it’s true that a fair number of Native people might not care much, either, which is a sentiment I’ve heard from members of my own family and tribe.

But Native mascots are a monument to racism, just as the Confederate statues that dot public grounds across the country are monuments to racism. And like the statues, despite their often incoherent and cheap origins, these mascots and team names have begun to represent something different for the American people, something grander. They stand in for a version of America that never existed, one that actually respected its neighboring tribal nations. (It makes sense, then, that Native mascots and team names took off at the turn of the twentieth century, just as America was sprinting into its next phase in colonization: The erasure and assimilation of traditional Native governance and culture.)

For many Americans, having these mascots in place is important to their identity and their culture. The Native mascot functions as a seal of approval for the Americans who support it, an ode to their belief that this land is fairly theirs. It is the manifestation of a century of lies told to schoolchildren, about how this country was not built on stolen land and Native blood but slowly ceded through fair trades with The Indians. Any attempts to deviate from this belief system will be met with resistance. So much rests on it.

So, you’ve got Washington’s team thinking about a name change, and the Chiefs — whose place in the most recent Super Bowl is what led to that New Republic piece you absolutely should read all of being published — considering one, too, because of the associated redface and the mascots and the appropriation the relatively innocuous-seeming name brings with it. It’s not just the NFL, of course: MLB’s Cleveland Indians are suddenly up for a name change, too, which is honestly something of a surprise. They already replaced Chief Wahoo as their primary logo in kind of a half-assed attempt to get the All-Star Game in Cleveland in 2019. “Half-assed,” because Cleveland was still able to sell and profit off of Wahoo merchandise, so long as it was sold locally. Oh, and there nothing was stopping white fans from showing up in a full headdress and redface so they could scream in the face of an actual Native outside the stadium, either.

It’s time for a name change for Cleveland, too, to wipe away the associated racism — and the “manifestation of a century of lies told to schoolchildren” — regardless of whether there is some temporary fallout from the fans who are determined to cling to their racism. The idea that the memories of the team will be damaged with a name change isn’t much worth your time, since the team will still exist, and so too will those memories. If your memories are dressing up in redface and playing Native in the stands, well, sure, they’ll be damaged, but maybe you could also stand to do a little bit of reflecting on your past behavior, anyway.

The name changes are good, and a better step than what the Atlanta Braves did last postseason with the Tomahawk Chop after Cardinals’ reliever Ryan Helsley, a member of the Cherokee Nation, spoke up against the chant. The Braves’ solution was to not distribute the foam tomahawks before the next home game — good! — but they kept doing the actual chop chant during the game, so long as Helsley wasn’t on the mound. As I wrote at the time, “admitting something is racist and then doing it two percent less often is even worse than feigning ignorance on the matter.”

Teams have been asked to do the bare minimum here, and they’ll have praise heaped upon them for managing it. That’s an entirely different problem, one also written about in that Tomahawk Chop piece linked above, but at least it’s a start toward dismantling some of the more overt racism that these teams’ names and associated “culture” around them generate and uphold. There is larger work to be done than a name change, but if those are swapped out for something that isn’t racist? If the merch is fully replaced without any “retro” gear being sold locally to continue to profit off of racism, with the excuse being that the team is just protecting a trademark? Then we can create an environment where showing up in redface and headdresses and banging on drums and tomahawk chopping at these sporting events make even less contextual sense than they do now.

  • Last week at Baseball Prospectus, I wrote about how MLB’s owners might not trust current commissioner Rob Manfred like they did his predecessor, Bud Selig, and how that might mean we’re seeing the start of cracks in their unity.

  • MLB apparently forgot July 4th is a federal holiday and that Sunday shipping is just a thing Amazon forces its workers to do, not a normal state of things for things like coronavirus tests.

  • Understandably, executives like the A’s David Forst are frustrated at MLB for completely messing up on testing and test results last week, which made it so that his team hasn’t been able to get going with this summer version of spring training.

  • The players are frustrated and anxious, too, as this story from Yahoo’s Tim Brown details.

  • Alicia Kennedy’s newsletter is good, to me.

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