When is a Mascot Offensive and Why?

Screen Shot 2013-09-22 at 4.09.25 PMIn Saturday’s Detroit News, reporter Josh Katzenstein wrote an extensive and informative frontpage story which chronicles and contemplates the current debate over the Washington Redskins name.  The discourse intensified last week, in fact, with a Washington Post editorial calling for a name change from the NFL team, deeming it “a racial slur of Native Americans so offensive that it should no longer be tolerated.”

The issue is a tough one with passion and emotion on both sides tempered with tradition and often confused intent.  My Alma Mater, the University of Illinois, saw its legendary Chief Illiniwek eliminated in a recent year due to pressure from special interest groups, some Native American, some not. This despite the fact that the Chief, who appeared briefly during halftime at U of I basketball and football games, was always portrayed tastefully and with great reverence and respect. Closer to home, of course, we are well aware of Eastern Michigan University’s switch to the Eagles from Hurons some 22 years ago.

Before their move to the nation’s capital, Washington was originally known as the Boston Braves in 1932, changing its name a year later. Some stories indicate that the team became the Redskins in honor of their then-head coach, who some say was Native American. Do those calling for the name change know this? Do they care? And what about a baseball team such as the Cleveland Indians, whose Chief Wahoo’s wide-grinning caricature is, I feel, as offensive as anything in sports?

The key, I think, is education, dialogue and sensitivity. Redskins owner Daniel Snyder remains defiant, telling the USA Today: “We will never change the name – It’s that simple. NEVER. You can use caps.” In Champaign, the debate over the Chief was less a discussion by all parties than a pressuring of politicians that led to his ousting before most supporters knew what was happening.  In Mt. Pleasant, Michigan, Central Michigan University works closely with and receives incredible support from the Chippewa tribe; consulting regularly on the proper use of the tribal name.

In D.C., Snyder would do well to welcome and encourage discourse and thoughtful debate from all parties – pro and con. Sit down with all constituents. Listen. Consider. If not, the loud protests are sure to continue; perhaps to the point that the NFL will be eventually forced to force Washington to take name-changing action.