Author`s name David R. Hoffman

Sports nicknames: harmless or racist?

The late scholar and author W.E.B. DuBois once wrote, “The problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line.”

Sadly, it is also the problem of the Twenty-First Century as demonstrated by a majority of so-called “justices” on the current United States Supreme Court whose racism is so blatant they had the audacity to cite the case of Brown vs. Topeka, which outlawed racial segregation in public schools, to reinstitute racial segregation in public schools.

Although the racism of America’s highest court graphically illustrates that the issues emanating from the “color-line” are numerous and variegated, most of the recent debate has centered on the use of the “N” word.

The debate over this word, and who is socially permitted to express it, was in evidence during the early days of the civil rights movement: Comedian Lenny Bruce used the “N” word in his nightclub act to accentuate the hypocrisy of a legal system that repeatedly charged him with “obscenity” for using slang terms describing sexual activity, yet remained passive and unconcerned whenever he used racial epithets; Mel Brooks utilized the “N” word to ridicule racism in his classic comedy Blazing Saddles; Comedian Richard Pryor released an album entitled That Nigger’s Crazy; and militant activist H. Rap Brown (Jamil Al-Amin) titled his 1969 autobiography Die Nigger Die.

Four artists: Two—Pryor and Brown—being African-American and two—Bruce and Brooks—being white. Yet in today’s culture would the latter two, because of their race, be prohibited from using the “N” word, regardless of their motives, while Brown and Pryor would not?

The answer: While African-American Comedian Chris Rock was devoting a large segment of his act to explaining how he “loves black people, but hates niggers,” African-American film director Spike Lee was criticizing white director Quentin Tarantino for using the “N” word in the film Pulp Fiction. More recently, former Seinfeld star Michael Richards was vilified for using the “N” word during a stand-up comedy routine, yet many African-American rap artists copiously express the “N” word in their songs.

This dichotomy has given rise to a new question and a new debate. Should use of the “N” word be the exclusive domain of African-Americans, or should the word be banned all together, regardless of who is using it?

Naturally the debate about race and racism has affected not only the entertainment industry, but other social institutions as well, perhaps the most prominent of these being sports. Gone are the days when African-Americans had to play in separate baseball leagues. Gone too are the days when the National Football League (NFL) thought it was “unnatural” to have an African-American quarterback or head coach. In fact, one of the “side stories” of the 2007 Super Bowl was how both teams, the Indianapolis Colts and the Chicago Bears, had African-American head coaches.

If one believes the media hype, it would appear that professional sports is particularly sensitive to issues involving race. Howard Cosell, one of the original sportscasters of Monday Night Football, drew criticism in 1983 when he referred to an African-American player as a “little monkey.” While Cosell disputed that the term was racially motivated, many believe it hastened his departure from the broadcast booth. In 1987, Al Campanis, general manager of Major League Baseball’s (MLB) Los Angeles Dodgers, lost his job after telling an interviewer that African-Americans lacked some of the “necessities” required to be field or general managers of professional baseball teams.

The same happened to Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder when he claimed that African-Americans were superior athletes because of selective breeding practices instituted by slaveholders in America’s antebellum South; ESPN’s ill-advised experiment to employ drug-addled blowhard Rush Limbaugh as a sports commentator came to a crashing halt after Limbaugh claimed that Donovan McNabb, the African-American quarterback of the Philadelphia Eagles, “was overrated because the media wanted to see a black quarterback succeed.” (, 10/02/03); More recently, radio commentator Don Imus was fired for referring to members of the Rutgers University Women’s Basketball Team as “nappy-headed hos”; and, finally, former Commissioner Paul Tagliabue seemed to make the NFL’s stance against racism perfectly clear by refusing to hold the Super Bowl in any State that failed to establish a holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Clearly these examples prove that those in charge of professional sports have made a concerted effort to eliminate racism.

Or have they?

It should be remembered that in America the “color-line” is more than black and white. Yet sports commentators display absolutely no hesitancy or compunction when they utter, on a weekly if not daily basis, the racially offensive term REDSKINS. In fact, an entire NFL team bears this racist name.

So-called racial “sensitivity” has also failed to inspire television networks to block out or blur one of the most racist images in sports: The inanely grinning caricature that is the mascot of MLB’s Cleveland Indians—CHIEF WAHOO.

Still, whenever critics challenge or even question the appropriateness of using these racist team names and mascots, they are denounced as examples of “political correctness” gone awry, and confronted with two counter arguments: “tradition” and “harmlessness.”

“Traditionalists” argue that Native-American nicknames and mascots have been around the sports world for years and therefore it is unfair to ask that they be changed now. Yet the very greed of professional sports mocks this argument.

For example, the previously mentioned Los Angeles Dodgers team was originally the Brooklyn Dodgers. Professional football’s Arizona Cardinals moved from St. Louis, after previously moving to St. Louis from Chicago. The Los Angeles Rams are now the St. Louis Rams, the Baltimore Colts are now the Indianapolis Colts, and the Raiders have moved from Oakland, to Los Angeles and back again. Clearly there is little concern about “tradition” when profit is involved.

Of course, many will argue that the above examples only altered a team’s location, not its nickname. But such an argument ignores the NFL’s Cleveland Browns that relocated to Baltimore and are now the Ravens, or the Decatur Staleys that evolved into the Chicago Bears, or the Houston Oilers who became the Tennessee Titans, while the team now located in Houston calls itself the Texans.

But football is not alone in making such changes. MLB’s Montreal Expos are now the Washington (D.C.) Nationals, while two other teams, the Minnesota Twins and the Texas Rangers, have a genealogy traceable back to Washington’s former team the Senators.

Meanwhile in the National Basketball Association (NBA) the Washington Bullets changed their name to the Washington Wizards due to concerns that the name Bullets would be associated with violence. Ironically one major professional sports team in Washington D.C. that has not changed its name is also the one with the best reason for changing it: The Washington REDSKINS.

The “harmlessness” argument also fails simply by observing that much of American society, outside of professional sports, now rejects racial stereotyping. Gone are the days when a common lawn ornament was a statue of an African-American boy holding a lantern to light the way for his “master.” Gone also are Sambo’s restaurants, in part because of protests over their name. In addition many high school and college teams have changed their nicknames and abandoned the use of Native-American mascots, while the NCAA, which governs much of college sports, has also taken a stand against Indian nicknames and mascots deemed to be “hostile and abusive.”

So before defending CHIEF WAHOO, answer these questions: Would any newly formed sports team seriously use for its mascot an inanely grinning Jewish person wearing a Yarmulke, or an African-American sporting an exaggerated Afro hairstyle, or a Mexican-American wearing an oversized sombrero, not to mention the plethora of other stereotypical images that could be molded from the nationalities and ethnicities in America’s melting pot? Would any professional sports team today name itself “the whiteskins, the yellowskins, the blackskins, or the brownskins?”

Recently Vernon Bellecourt, a prominent member of the American Indian Movement (AIM), passed away. The latter part of his life was devoted to protesting racism in sports. Yet Bellecourt died without seeing many of the changes he struggled for become a reality.

Perhaps the reason for this intransigence is that Native-Americans remain the symbol of American apartheid. Even the Declaration of Independence condemns “the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.” Too bad Thomas Jefferson and the co-authors of this document did not live to see the Trail of Tears, where over 4,000 Native-Americans died as a result of forced relocation. Nor did they live to witness the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890, where at least one hundred and forty Native-American men, women and children were slaughtered for practicing a religious ritual known as the Ghost Dance.

I also wonder how the creators of the Bill of Rights would react if they knew how callously the racists on the United States Supreme Court—some of whom still sit on that court today—decimated the fundamental right to religious freedom in their zeal to suppress rituals practiced by the Native-American church.

The failure to address the concerns of Native-Americans about how they and their beliefs are portrayed in the public arena means only one thing: There is no such thing as “political correctness.” There is simply political power and the lack thereof. Years of disease, injustice and deprivation have drastically reduced the numbers, and thus the political power, of Native-Americans. In addition, their very legitimate desire to preserve their religions, their languages and their autonomy has made them unwilling to assimilate into “mainstream” society; therefore, their voices are rarely heard outside of “Indian Country.”

Instead Americans hear the apologists in the corporate-controlled media feigning disbelief that anyone could be offended by a character as “innocuous” as CHIEF WAHOO, or by a name as “harmless” as REDSKINS. But for a people whose innocence was stolen long ago through broken treaties and government lies, the harm has yet to cease.

David R. Hoffman, Legal Editor of Pravda.Ru

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