The NCAA and Team Names

The NCAA made headlines this weekend because it has banned the use of “hostile or abusive” nicknames and mascots of sports’ teams. In order to better understand the issues, one needs to consider the purpose and use of sports names and mascots. The NCAA, though, has over 300 teams in just Division I. In order to study the issue, it might be easier to look at the evolution of professional sports’ names.

The United States has four major sports leagues: baseball, football, basketball, and once again hockey. Team started out early with benign names. In the oldest professional league, many of the oldest teams are named after popular non-predatory birds or vague terms which are hard to determine the meaning of: The St. Louis Cardinals, The Baltimore Orioles, The Cincinnati Reds, The San Francisco Giants, The Oakland Athletics, The L.A. Dodgers, The White Sox, and The Red Sox (who at least were originally called the Boston Pilgrims!). Similarly, a couple of the older football teams have somewhat generic names, like the N.Y. Giants and the N.Y. Jets. Sometimes these older teams chose a name for alliteration purposes: like the Chicago Cubs or the Philadelphia Phillies.

However, those teams are the exception. The rule of thumb in sports is that teams choose a term that either embraces the geohistorical roots of the city or conjures a fearsome image to both rally the team and impose fear in their opposition.

The Yankees are named after the Dutch term for English settlers in the New World. The other New York team, the Mets, is named after the great Metropolitan area that the team plays in. The Astros are named after the Aero-Space industry that resides in Houston. The Texas Rangers are named in honor of the legendary law enforcers. The Padres honor the Spanish missionaries who came with the conquistadors to California and the Brewers are named after the famous industry that German immigrants brought to Wisconsin.

When teams went for a fearsome name, instead of a geohistorical one, they chose either supposedly violent people or supposedly violent animals. Thus, Pittsburgh chose the alliteration Pittsburgh Pirates. Detroit and Arizona chose the predatory Tigers and Diamondbacks, respectively.

So what about the NCAA and Native Americans? Who’s right and who’s wrong? It all boils down to one question: Why are the teams named after Native Americans? If a team is named after Native Americans because they are supposedly fearsome/violent people, then we are stereotyping Native Americans. That is offensive and wrong. On the other hand, if a team name is embracing their geohistorical background, then this should be commended.

The Atlanta Braves are named after the colonial term for Native American warriors. Is that embracing the defenders of the tribe or continuing to stereotyping Indians as violent? The Cleveland Indians have a fairly straightforward name, but then lampoon their sports’ name with the Chief Wahoo image. Is that embracing or stereotyping?

The eighteen schools whose names were banned this weekend by the NCAA are: Central Michigan University (Chippewas), Catawba College (Indians), Florida State University (Seminoles), Midwestern State University (Indians), University of Utah (Utes), Indiana University-Pennsylvania (Indians), Carthage College (Redmen), Bradley University (Braves), Arkansas State University (Indians), Chowan College (Braves), University of Illinois-Champaign (Illini), University of Louisiana-Monroe (Indians), McMurry University (Indians), Mississippi College (Choctaws), Newberry College (Indians)University of North Dakota (Fighting Sioux), and Southeastern Oklahoma State University (Savages).

There is a clear difference between the terms Redmen, Fighting Sioux, Savages and maybe Braves on one hand and the term “Indian” and the names of tribes on the other hand. [Of course, how the “Indians” are depicted in logos and by mascots can determine whether it’s embracing history or stereotyping a racial group.] But what about North Dakota? If the university dropped the adjective “Fighting” would that be enough? Is there anything wrong with using a tribe’s name? A lot has already been made by the fact that the Seminole Tribe supports the use of their name. Did the NCAA solicit the advice of the Chippewas, Utes, and Choctaws first or were the wishes of American’s First People ignored yet again?

These are complicated issues. It is too simplistic to attack the NCAA for being too politically correct and it’s too callused to say we should name sports’ teams after anything and anyone with no regard for people’s feelings. We should all look at the NCAA’s actions, look at the issues and decide for ourselves whether we can do better.

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