The Football Name Debate: Are We Missing the Point?

One of several indigenous college students at the CAP panel.

“The debate is over about the R-word; it’s now about whether if it’s proper to have a football team in this country carry on using a defined slur.” That was the closing statement by Jacqueline Pata, the Executive Director of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI). Her comment capped off a forum at the Center for American Progress, Missing the Point: The Real Impact of Native Mascots and Team Names on American Indian and Alaska Native Youth. The Center released a new report that examined several bodies of research about the harmful impact of mascot representations on the self-esteem of AI/AN youth, how they create a hostile learning environment, and the decades-long movement to retire them. The report by Erik Stegman and Victoria Phillips looks at recent key findings and incorporates statements from several Native youths, providing context that is relevant today regarding the use of these mascots and imagery.

Sitting on today’s panel was Pata; Travis Waldron, Sports Reporter, ThinkProgress.org; Mark Macarro, Chairman, Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians; Dr. Michael Friedman, Clinical Psychologist; and Erik Stegman, Associate Director, Center for American Progress. The forum started with very poignant remarks by fifteen-year-old Dahkota Franklin Kicking Bear Brown, a student at Argonaut High School in California, and a Champion for Change at the Center for Native American Youth. Congresswoman Betty McCollum (D-MN) also spoke briefly at the event.

Over the last year, the debate over the use of the slur by the Washington professional football team has largely centered on issues of economics and fan nostalgia. The larger issue at hand, however, is beyond the sports soundbites that dominate this discussion. Data and research now shows that the use of such racist and derogatory team names (and by association, ‘traditions’ and fan antics) have real and detrimental effects on Native youth today. With fifty percent of the Native population being of 25 years of age or younger, the danger of perpetuating this practice and continuing the cycle of defeatism, hostile learning environments, and poor self-esteem is all too real.

(R to L): Travis Waldron, Sports Reporter, ThinkProgress.org; Mark Macarro, Chairman, Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians; Jacqueline Pata, Executive Director, National Congress of American Indians

Studies are also showing that these mascots are undermining the educational experience of all students, particularly those with little or no contact with indigenous and Native peoples. These stereotypical representations are too often being understood by the population as factual representations of Native culture and people, contributing to the development cycle of cultural biases and prejudices.

Think that’s not really an issue in today’s progressive twenty-first century? Brown shared some of the experiences that happened in his high school. “Our cheerleaders dressed up one of our own in a Halloween ‘Pokahottie’ costume, tied her to a stake after dragging her out on the field in shackles against her will. They proceeded to dance around her, acting as if they were beating her, treating her as a slave. It’s one of the sickest halftime shows I’ve ever seen.” An avid football fan, he nonetheless dreads the game against rivals Calaveras, who use the R-word slur as their team name. “The most offensive stuff doesn’t even come from the [other team fans]. It comes from their rival schools, mine included. I have heard my own friends yelling around me, ‘Kill the Redskins!’ or “Send them on the Trail of Tears!'”

It took a lot of courage for Brown to address the audience, knowing he would be returning home to California and his schoolmates, many whom taunt him and other Natives on a consistent basis for his ethnicity. “When they hear the world ‘Native’ all they see is a football helmet or a big-nosed head on a jersey. Even the staff isn’t immune,” he said. “I was with a group of Natives at school and a teacher asked us what we were talking about. We said we were discussing some Native issues, and the teacher responded with ‘Oh, you are all Indians? I wouldn’t have known by looking at you.'”

Congresswoman McCollum put the debate into perspective. The entire issue was past the debate of the use of the name, and has moved into education on the issue. “It’s important for young people to have a positive image about themselves,” she said. How can that happen if the word is given a free pass in schools and by organizations, and yet other dictionary-defined slurs are considered forbidden? “This is an educational experience we have to be willing to take a journey on.”

Jacqueline Pata, Executive Director, National Congress of American Indians and Dr. Michael Friedman, Clinical Psychologist

The panel largely discussed how detrimental these mascots and imagery are towards Native youth. A decade ago, the American Psychological Association (APA) issued a resolution calling for the immediate retirement of all team names, mascots, and other derogatory representations. They found through several key findings that such imagery “undermines the educational experiences of members of all communities–especially those who have had little or not contact with Indigenous peoples.” In 2001, a statement from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights said:

The stereotyping of any racial, ethnic, religious, or other groups when promoted by our public educational institutions, teach all students that stereotyping of minority groups is acceptable, a dangerous lesson in a diverse society. Schools have a responsibility to educate their students; they should not use their influence to perpetuate misrepresentations of any culture or people. Children at the elementary and secondary level usually have no choice about which school they attend. (Statement of U.S. Commission on Civil Rights on the Use of Native American Images and Nicknames as Sports Symbols, 2001)

The APA also found that these misrepresentations create hostile learning environments that decrease student academic achievement and the ability to succeed. Native youth today have some of the lowest high school graduation rates in the country and endure poverty at nearly double the national rate.

Ultimately, however, it’s tribal leadership that needs to be there to support their youth. Pata noted that as a tribal leader herself, it’s important that every decision the tribe makes is for the next generation. “Tribal leaders are recognizing the issues our youth are facing today,” she said. “We want their lives to be different, and this is one way [by opposing mascotry] to do that.”

Friedman emphatically noted that the suicide rate among Native youth is two-and-a-half times the national average. “This isn’t a political correctness issue,” he said. “It’s a public health issue.” He noted that these high rates are set against the backdrop of the highest poverty rates, poorest health, and lowest educational outcomes in the country. Combined with rampant substance abuse and poor self- and community-esteem, the challenges are nearly insurmountable for Native youth, holding back their entire community and preventing future opportunities. This carries forward as they age, keeping tribal identities suppressed and perpetuating these ills.

Dahkota Franklin Kicking Bear Brown, Student, Argonaut High School; Champion for Change, Center for Native American Youth

Before one can brush off such statements, an understanding of the unique perspective of Native communities is necessary. A recent article in the Journal of Clinical Psychology said:

The military action, missionary efforts, the Federal Indian Boarding School Movement, the Dawes Act, the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act, and the Indian Child Welfare Act forever changed the economic, physical, and social lives of AI/AN people. Once self-reliant and self-sufficient, the policies of the federal government forced tribes/indigenous people toward removal, relocations, isolation, and in some cases, termination and extinction, resulting in social, economic, and spiritual deprivations. (Journal of Clinical Psychology 66(8), 2010)

But there’s hope. Native youth today are making their stands. “Our younger generation is now saying what’s acceptable,” said Pata. “Schools are beginning to talk about what’s right, tribal history, and other discussions that helps bolster our youth to formulate change.” The road is hard, however, because the Native minority population in this country is so small; to make their voices heard, a consistent push for change is necessary.

“Part of the problem,” Macarro said, “is that we are invisible by the numbers, so these characterizations and stereotypes perpetuate in society,” making Natives ignored in the conversation. This concept of invisibility is a big deal among tribal leaders, who grew up in the previous era, noted for termination, removal, and revocation policies. Even today, many Native-dominant schools – founded and started by non-Natives – retain similar racial slurs as their mascots and names. “It’s a fact that many Natives do submit themselves to conformity by wearing the apparel, accepting the slur as a team name, perpetuating the racism,” said Macarro. “But what is wrong on the reservation is still wrong in the world.” It doesn’t diminish the argument for change.

Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN)

Despite the fact of such acceptance, trumpeted by some media and opponents of change, Natives are out there facing the task ahead. “It’s not just a fight about the Washington football team mascot,” said Stedman. He indicated other steps that can be taken, or are being undertaken by Native advocates. The report outlined several at the local, state, and federal levels, including working with the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) at the Department of Education. Similar actions such as that taken by Oregon in banning outright all discriminatory mascots are mentioned, and suggests nonprofit legal assistance programs provide education programs for students and families about their rights, and help file complaints to OCR and other relevant agencies.

Additional research is needed, of course. Stedman recommends that the “federal government work across agencies to identify new research topics to better understand the extend to which these mascots and team names perpetuate bullying, hostile learning environments, and negative attitudes about AI/AN people.”

While the spotlight remains on Dan Snyder and his organization, the fight has progressed beyond the simple economic and soundbite war of using the current moniker. The deeper issue, when one takes the time to wade into the waters, is the ripple effect that washes over Native communities in this country, affecting tomorrow’s Native leaders and continually damaging their communities. The cycle has to end, and eliminating these racial stereotypes is a giant step in the right direction. With all the rhetoric, politicizing, media soundbites, and PR spin, let’s not miss the point.

“The use of these slurs and logos homogenizes tribes and their individual identities into a false grouping and stereotype,” said Macarro. “What it comes down to, fundamentally, is respectfulness.”

Change the name.

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4 thoughts on “The Football Name Debate: Are We Missing the Point?

  1. Thought I’d follow up and read more.

    The all-pervasive nature of this type of discrimination made it easy to ignore for a long time. I know this from experience, as I kind of shared in my comment on the newer post above.

    For years it was easy to say that the Washington moniker and logo were not that bad, especially by comparison with certain other sports logos. The Cleveland Indian caricature was so bad, it sliced through the cultural indifference and always struck me as offensive. I directed my ire toward that one, and yet ignored or passed off others as being “ok” or “not that bad”.

    So there I was, part of the indifference, a sad state of affairs. My mom’s father’s mother was full-blooded Cherokee. My dad’s father’s father was at least half Apache but was raised on a reservation in Maine where he was sent with his family during the early twentieth century, and left it as soon as he could find a wife to help him do so. All of that makes this article series hit home with me that much more, that I was so accepting of something that should be unacceptable. Not that birth and ancestry should make a difference in how one perceives the world, upbringing and education should do that. But the general culture around all of us was not as enlightened as it has have become in recent decades.

    This article/post in particular hit me hard and yet showed me that I am far from alone; that the type of cultural apathy that allowed these insults to pass every day in our society affects all people, as insidiously as the repeated insults and slurs themselves affect targeted people over time.

    Again, very thoughtful posting. Sorry to over-share a little on this subject, and I hope I’m not rambling too bad, but speaking up – even amid silence – is at the heart of this series, I see. So I have. Respect.

    1. Not at all a problem; I’m glad you shared. Stories like yours and others are muted because of the incessant shouting by the other side; there’s a refusal to listen. And I think that’s in large part because nobody wants to admit that their beloved team has a racist name, because the implication is that they’re perpetuating that stereotype and racism. I don’t believe fans of the team are racist, but they ARE myopic. When the team’s name changes, it’s just the name. Not the team. The history, the tradition, all those things they cite aren’t going away. It’s just under a different name. Plenty of teams in many leagues have changed names and still maintained a connection to their roots: Carolina Hurricanes, Winnipeg Jets, LA Dodgers, Baltimore Ravens, Arizona Cardinals, and so on.

      That’s what the crux of the matter has become; a failure to admit that they are supporting a continuing culture of racism, because their overindulgence in team pride has blinded them to the cultural relevance they’re tramping on.

  2. Thank you. I was a tad concerned, but I closed my eyes and clicked enter anyway.

    As your post and our commentary indicates, that myopia has a way of infecting almost anybody. In many cases, it was handed down in generational fashion. But we are regaining perspective. Issues like this are as divisive as they are offensive, so there is still battle to be fought in the matter. But the going is now easier than ever it was before.

    With regard to the Washington football team, change is now a matter of when, and not if. Dan Snyder cannot hold out forever, no matter the rhetoric that he practices.

    Then maybe we can see about that bombastic Cleveland Indian logo becoming something more respectable. The name is fine, the face is not. At all. And of course, there are other teams that should also take stock of what they say they represent and what they actually represent.

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