Monday, May 6, 2013

Ethnic Names for Sports Teams

I was recently involved in a discussion of sports team names in which I quoted something I had often heard – that the Washington Redskins’ name does not refer to American Indians at all, that the team was originally in Boston and the name is a reference to the patriots who dressed up as Indians for the Boston Tea Party.

It turns out that this is a mix of truth and hogwash. The overall point is true (the team name does not refer to Amerinds in any sort of direct way), and the team was originally in Boston, but that's where the truth ends and the hogwash (and complications) begin.

In the first season the team existed, 1932, the team played in the same stadium as the Boston (later Milwaukee, later still Atlanta) Braves, and used the same name.

Digression: Adopting a local baseball team’s name was common practice in the early years of the NFL – the New York Giants did the same thing (and there were once football teams called the New York Yankees and Brooklyn Dodgers as well). I have always assumed, though I don’t know, that the Chicago Bears chose their name in reference to the Cubs, and the Detroit Lions to the Tigers.

To get back on subject, after the 1932 season, the team moved to Fenway Park, the home of Boston’s other baseball team, the Red Sox. Apparently wanting a name that reflected their previous one, but also wanting to acknowledge their new hosts, they changed the name to Redskins.

But, you might say, if the baseball Braves were named for American Indians this makes no difference. True, but the baseball team name was chosen to reflect the fact that one of their owners was connected with New York’s Tammany Hall political machine.
"The nickname of Braves was first given the club at the suggestion of John Montgomery Ward, when James E. Gaffney, from Tammany Hall, became club president in 1912. Previously, the club had been known as the Doves, a name bestowed on the team when George B. and John E. C. Dovey became its owners; and also the Red Caps and Beaneaters."

Glad they dumped the 'Beaneaters' name. To return again to the subject, the members of Tammany Hall (who were far more likely to be Irish than Amerind) were generally referred to as braves. This is because Tammany Hall took its name from an Indian, Tamanend; so we finally get to an Indian, but now we’re several connections removed from the football team.

In any case, I’ve often wondered why so many non-Indians get all worked up about use of Indian names, if the Indians themselves mostly don’t care:
Here's the most important finding: "Asked if high school and college teams should stop using Indian nicknames, 81 percent of Native American respondents said no. As for pro sports, 83 percent of Native American respondents said teams should not stop using Indian nicknames, mascots, characters, and symbols." 

And why should the Amerinds object? Is naming a sports team intended as a slur? Quite the opposite – sports teams are almost universally named for people or animals that are considered admirable in some way. Let’s use animal names as examples: names are chosen to connote speed (Jaguars), strength (Bears), nobility (Eagles), and other virtues. Nobody calls their team the Weasels or the Rats.

And of course other ethnic groups are also the basis for team names. There aren’t many folks from Troy around to tell us how they feel about the USC Trojans, and Sparta is long gone as well, so we can’t check with them about Michigan State. But I don’t hear any complaints from Irish-Americans about Notre Dame’s team name (I suspect most would scream in outrage if ND considered a change), nor do any of my Scandanavian friends object to the Minnesota Vikings.

Here’s a list of ethnic team names, from which I selected a few:
  • Alfred University Saxons
  • Bethany College Swedes
  • Hope College Flying Dutchmen
  • Iona Gaels
  • Louisiana–Lafayette Ragin' Cajuns
  • Luther College Norse a/k/a Norsemen
  • Macalester College Fighting Scots
  • San Diego State Aztecs
I’ve heard no complaints from any of the groups represented above.

And then of course there are teams named the Patriots, Minutemen, Cowboys, Pioneers, Sooners, Forty-Niners, and other references to groups of Americans other than Indians, but thus far I'm aware of no claims that any of those names constitute libel.

My ASU Sun Devils have still not heard from Satan, but if they don't start winning regularly, they may.

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