The Honor of the Mascot, Or A Team By Any Other Name

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41 Responses

  1. Jaybird says:

    There are teams called the Vikings and the Celtics. If you want to consider “Yankees” a slur (for the record, I sure as hell use it as one) then there’s another.

    I mean, yeah. Your point stands… but there are more than zero teams out there named after people of pallor, at least.Report

  2. Ryan says:

    “But if there were a Los Angeles Kikes or a Washington Niggers, all quaintly dressed up in their most recognizable cultural stereotypes, how long ago would growing popular outrage have forced the issue beyond the bounds of the blind technicalities of law?”

    This, of course, is sort of the point. While you throw away poll results because they don’t seem to fit your story, it remains that outrage over “Redskins” and such is pretty low, even among the groups whose ancestry is being appropriated. That’s not a logical argument against your position, but it’s certainly not nothing.Report

    • A. Jay Adler in reply to Ryan says:

      Ryan, I didn’t linger on the poll results because it’s a very complex issue. I mentioned demographics, for instance. The polling in both instances was done via random phone number selection. How many of those polled lived on reservations? How many were mixed in the general population? How many were full-blooded or something close, and with close ties to traditional culture? How many were 1/8 or 1/16 Native with little tie to or knowledge of the culture? How many Native Americans on reservations in some of the poorest counties in the U.S. don’t have telephones? On reservations with unemployment of 60-80%, it is perfectly understandable that poor and very possibly ill people are not thinking about the name of the Washington football team. That doesn’t mean it is right. And as I did argue – the various Indian nations signed all of those treaties too. They consented. Do you want to argue that this consent justified all that happened?Report

  3. Will says:

    Interesting post. As a Redskins fan, I’m inclined to defend my team, and one possible justification for keeping the name is that it has (at least in this area) largely been emptied of any negative racial or ethnic connotations.Report

  4. As a Notre Dame fan and someone of Irish descent, this is just kind of silly.

    I was out west this summer and spent a lot of time on indian reservations and the surrounding towns. What I saw there is a people that while proud, also have no problems with milking cultural stereotypes for every dollar they can get out of them. I say more power to them, but then when they get offended by the Atlanta Braves…I find it laughable.Report

  5. Jason Arvak says:

    Even if one were to concede the claim that team mascot names reflect the diabolic post-modernist boogeyman of the “dominating mentality of the conqueror”, that doesn’t mean we should empower the government (especially the courts) to ban or punish their use.Report

    • I agree with you about the role of the courts in this and any similar matter. My argument is about the state of American consciousness on the Native situation. With regard to the diabolic post-modernist boogeyman of the ‘dominating mentality of the conqueror,’” – that’s a wry formulation more commonly offered up by those who haven’t been subject to that domination of mentality.Report

    • This case isn’t about empowering government to ban or punish the use of certain team mascot names. So far as I can tell, it’s an attempt to deprive the name “Redskins” of registered trademark status on the grounds that registration never should have been granted by the PTO. Trademark protection is itself a function of government – trademarks can’t exist as intellectual property without government creating and protecting the concept of the “trademark” in the first place.

      There is a legitimate argument to be made that whether a mark is “immoral or scandalous” is an inappropriate basis for refusing to register a trademark on the grounds that this permits the government to favor some types of speech over others. This, however, is probably not an argument that would be very persuasive, as the nature of trademark law requires that the government do exactly that. So, for instance, you can’t register a trademark based solely on the use of certain words or features if the PTO believes those words or features to be overly descriptive, functional, or insufficiently distinctive.

      But the key thing here is that we’re talking about whether the government should provide trademark protection to the term “Redskins.” I don’t find this materially different from the notion that the government should be able to demand that recipients of government funds abide by employment discrimination laws despite the existence of First Amendment freedom of association.

      Additionally, there is the other issue of commercial speech receiving less protection than political or expressive speech. (I am, of course, very sympathetic to arguments against this distinction, but it’s well-established law nonetheless).Report

      • Mark, thanks for those insights. Of course, what the plaintiffs were doing in their suit is what people often do. Their real argument is a moral one within a society that doesn’t care, so they seek an angle to sue via the intricacies of trademark law. A clarification, if you will, on your third paragraph analogy – how does government regulating the activity of the recipient of government funds translate in the issue of the government protecting the Redskins trademark?Report

        • In response to your question: both instances involve government providing a private commercial entity with a benefit to which it would not have access but for government intervention. In such circumstances, it is entirely reasonable, even to my libertarian eyes, for government to place some restrictions on receipt of those benefits. In the case of trademark, though, I think the case may actually be more clear, because trademark law is itself an exception of sorts to free speech rights.Report

        • One other thing – I should add that the “immoral or scandalous” argument is not a novel attempt by the “Natives” to carve out an exception to trademark registrability. It’s a fairly longstanding standard of PTO registrability, so there’s actually a good amount of merit to the case. That said, the grounds on which the suit was thrown out, while technically a technicality (ha!), were far from manufactured by the courts – allowing a registration to be contested on grounds such as these so long after it had been registered and after the relevant affected groups were aware of the registration could very well set a dangerous precedent for future cases on other issues.Report

          • No doubt, from a legal perspective, my argument right here would be considered beyond the bounds of law. But from a larger perspective, historical circumstance I think can rightfully argue for exception to the technicalities that prevailed. Official U.S. policy toward Indian Tribes has changed at least five times over the past one hundred and fifty years, with wild swings from encouraging and even forcing the dissolution of Tribes and their existing governments, with population transfers from reservations to cities, to reasserting notions of Tribal sovereignty on reservation lands and encouraging, again, self-rule. Tribal cultures and societies have suffered dissolution and had to be functionally reconstituted multiple times, often over many decades, and many are still dysfunctional. To argue under such circumstances that such an effectively nullified actor was not timely in asserting a legal claim is, I think, to use the law to the dominating advantage I am arguing against.Report

  6. Sam M says:

    “So here is a question worth pondering: Would they be mascots if they’d won?”

    Uh… there’s a team called the Cowboys. And many like them. So yes. The winners do become mascots.

    Also, isn’t there a proper distinction between teams with names like “The Redskins” and teams like “The Braves”? One word was originally meant as a perjorative. The other was not. So while agree that it would be inappropriate to name a team “the Niggers,” it would seem far less bad to name a team after the Tuskeegee Airmen, or some such. Similarly, a team called “The Spics” is different than a team called “The Caballeros.” Both are ethnic. But one is obviously a cut-down while the other is not. Seriously, do you think that the teams named “The Crusaders” and “The White Trash” are equally offensive? Or does one manage to speak to something other than race?Report

    • A. Jay Adler in reply to Sam M says:

      There are two issues here: team names and mascots. Then there is the nature of the name, as we both acknowledge. And there is context. Cowboys were/are not a racial or ethnic group, and no one conquered, oppressed or committed genocide against them. White America is honoring its own sense of itself through such a name. People rightfully get to do that about themselves – like the Fighting Irish. The context is entirely different. Sure some names are worse (or better) than others. But my point stands about who, in fact, has been subject to team naming and who hasn’t. Even were someone moved to “honor” the Tuskegee Airmen in such a way. In our current cultural environment for African-Americans, do you think they surely would check with survivors and descendents, and even the more general Black community and leadership – first? I think so. Also, the Tuskegee Airmen represent Black Americans in a role of post-slavery equality, as do the Navajo and other Native Code Talkers – though they still couldn’t vote. Images and names that continue to make anthropological objects of Indians from the period of their conquest are different. I’m not suggesting there is a science to this, but I think there are recognizable distinctions. And while the primary issue then was race, the greater issue now is context: recognition that a conquest and genocide occurred and that Native Americans continue to suffer profoundly from it.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to A. Jay Adler says:

        Let’s say that Cleveland changes the name of the ball team to the Cleveland Cabers (new mascot, guy in a kilt holding a tree in a way that would make Freud tremble).

        Then what? Will anything be helped at all?

        From my white middle-class vantage point, it seems to me that nothing, like, nothing nothing, will have changed.

        Am I wrong in seeing it that way?Report

        • A. Jay Adler in reply to Jaybird says:

          Well, as a literary person, you’ll understand, as I tried to suggest, that I believe symbols matter very much. No, of course, if the Cleveland Indians change their name, nothing concretely good automatically and immediately flows to Native Americans from the change. As I’ve written elsewhere, the essential point is the almost total indifference of American society to its history vis-à-vis the Native population and to current conditions flowing from that history. Take note, again, of the Discovery Doctrine, that it is still U.S. law and that someone like Scalia still cites it without any apparent play of conscience. Take not of both the Individual Indian Money Trust Fund suit and the Tribal Trust Fund suit. These are, in fact, the end game of the conquest of previous centuries being acted out now, in the twenty-first century, and government behavior has not changed in the slightest. Name changes would symbolize an altering consciousness, perhaps before more concrete change, perhaps after, but it would be such a symbol.Report

  7. A. Jay Adler says:

    Now if we can identify one of those people of pallor teams named after a group that has so self-identified anytime in, I don’t know – the last thousand years, we might be getting somewhere. Seriously, since you mention the Celts – and context very much mattering – I wonder if there are any English athletic teams that name themselves after the Irish or the Scots. A kilted William Wallace mascot charging up and down the rugby sidelines? I don’t know, but I have my doubts? Anyone who does know?

    As to using Yankee as a slur – we don’t take kindly to that in NYC…Report

    • Jaybird in reply to A. Jay Adler says:

      NEW YORK CITY???

      (get a rope)Report

    • Jaybird in reply to A. Jay Adler says:

      Some quick googling tells me that Soccer teams across the pond are all named something to the effect of “(town)” or “(town united)”. Sometimes, they’re called “(town) football club”.

      That said, Europe has a lot of problems with stuff like “throwing bananas on the field when an African player gets on it”… so it’s not like racism isn’t in the picture at all.Report

      • A. Jay Adler in reply to Jaybird says:

        Thanks for the research, Jaybird. (That name almost permits me to forgive the Yankee slur. Better make it a thick rope.) My response to you did seem to suggest that racism might be more characteristic here – and I didn’t mean that at all. It’s a human malady, and I am annoyed myself when some suggest there is something characteristically American about it.Report

        • Kevin in reply to A. Jay Adler says:

          There is the London Irish, who play rugby. I’m not terribly familiar with the history of the team, so I don’t know how well it matches up with the situation you discuss here, but it is an example of a British team named for a “conquered” people.Report

          • A. Jay Adler in reply to Kevin says:

            Interesting. Thanks. Now the question is how the Irish feel about it. Or, maybe, like the Fighting Irish, maybe it is, or began as, Irish-fielded club. Once I get a break from pounding out replies put some caffeine in me, I’ll do a little research of my own.Report

    • Margaret in reply to A. Jay Adler says:

      There’s a soccer team in Scotland called the Celts (, so called b/c of it’s Irish and Scottish origins. The wikipedia also notes a soccer club called the Hibernians.Report

  8. Sam M says:

    “no one conquered, oppressed or committed genocide against them.”
    But the question was whether or not they would be mascots if they had won. And clearly, sides that won have been and continue to be fodder for mascots.

    SO yes. I suspect that, had the Native Americans succeeded in somehow pushing settlers off the continent, or in halting their advance, and if that culture then advanced to the state that it had sports teams with mascots, it would have named its sports teams after some of the figures involved in that fight.

    Right up the road in Smethport, PA, their team mascot is the Hubbers. named for the men who worked on the railroad hub at the time. I hardly think the only people who would choose such a name are folks who at some stage vanquished railroad hubbers in that fashion. Similarly, I see no reason to believe that Indians would not have followed suit.

    Were the Green Bay Packers named by folks who hated and slaughtered meat packers?

    And again, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish.

    So yes. Sometimes the winners name sports teams after themselves. I thought that was the question.Report

    • A. Jay Adler in reply to Sam M says:

      My point is not to argue for the intrinsic moral superiority of Native Americans over Europeans, prior to the period of contact or during it. But if that is the requirement for recognizing and righting wrongs, then no wrongs would ever be made right. (Though I would say that various Native cultures, in my opinion, lived out a superior understanding of an integrated human role in nature.) So whether Indians would have done the same had they “won” was not and is not my point. Nor is the naming of teams to honor one’s own kind – or groups that exist as a matter of association rather than racial, ethnic or similar identity. It is conquerors doing so in relation to those they conquered, and not even recognizing that the nature of the relationship influences the nature of the act. Do you really have any doubt that had, indeed, the Native peoples prevailed and ruled over a remnant European population that the existence of a Washington Redcoats would be an unsettling phenomenon? See how they march with precision, how they fire on command. All praise the valiant Brits!Report

  9. Jason Arvak says:

    With regard to the diabolic post-modernist boogeyman of the ‘dominating mentality of the conqueror,’” – that’s a wry formulation more commonly offered up by those who haven’t been subject to that domination of mentality.

    Right. I keep forgetting that any attempt to disagree with post-modernist characterizations of our alleged mental states will always be taken as additional proof of the existence of that mental state. Post-modernism — the ultimate circular theory. :rolleyes:Report

  10. A. Jay Adler says:

    Come on, Jason, we can move beyond the barrier of ideological language that puts us off one another. How much insight into human nature or character does it take to acknowledge that the stronger have power over the weaker, the bully has power over the bullied? They enact roles long enough and the one with the advantage begins not even to perceive it anymore. For how many families was the Black mammy “almost like a member” of? She always knew she wasn’t. The person sitting on you may not know he’s squeezing the air out of you, but you sure know it. It doesn’t require sophisticated and objectionable theorizing to make these recognitions.
    Now stop crossing your eyes.Report

    • Let’s try this way — even if I were to accept the I-think-overwrought post-modern characterizations about the “mentality of domination”, I am quite confident that using courts to redress those would be a very real danger to freedom of speech.

      Because while I do acknowledge the reality of historical oppression and its psychological and cultural dimensions, I think that empowering individuals either in the academy or in the legal realm to redress these dimensions coercively by either official or tacit censorship is extremely vulnerable to over-application and abuse.Report

      • I think you’re arguing with a straw man. I’ve said, my purpose was not to argue for legal resolution, at least not the kind to which you refer. But Mark did indicate that, other than the timeliness issue and one other technicality, there might be some reasonable trademark law arguments to be made. Everyone all over the nation makes the arguments that the law will sustain for them. No reason Indians shouldn’t be allowed.
        But I’m not making the case for the legal system to address these issues, and certainly not the academy – hell, besides teaching a few people and annoying the rest, we can get anything done.
        This is a policy matter, which is a matter of consciousness (that term okay?), and as a writer, that is something I can try to affect.Report

        • I went back and read it again and that is not at all clear in your post. It appears that you are endorsing the idea of the Supreme Court not only declining to apply the technicality, but also upholding the merits of the plaintiff’s case demanding that the Washington Redskins be forced to change their name.

          It further seems to be at least implied that you seek the enlistment of the courts in helping to overcome the “domineering mentality of conquest”, which can be perceived to exist in a much wider range of areas than just offensive sports team names and mascots. Given how post-modern theorists frequently ascribe everything from workplace promotions that fail to favor minorities to the expression of personal/political opinions they don’t like to the “domineering mentality of conquest”, I don’t think I am being unreasonable in being concerned about the direction that this kind of thing tends toward.Report

          • Jason:

            You are misunderstanding the nature of the Washington Redskins case. As I noted above, this is a trademark case. If the Redskins were to lose the trademark case, they would still be permitted to use the name Redskins. However, they would no longer be able to possess a registered trademark. As a practical matter, this would mean the Redskins would likely change their name because they would lose the ability to prohibit others from profiting off their name. But it would in no sense be the government forcing them to change their name because it was offensive; it would simply be the government refusing to provide trademark protection to the Redskins mark. Since trademark protection (much like copyright protection) is itself an exception to free speech rights, this can hardly be viewed as a threat to free speech – indeed, cancelling a trademark registration marginally strengthens free speech rights in the populace as a whole.

            Moreover, it is important to note that the relevant language in the statute at issue, 15 U.S.C. 1052(a), has been on the books for a very long time, since well before political correctness was even in the lexicon. It effectively prohibits the Patent and Trademark Office from registering a trademark if it:

            “Consists of or comprises immoral, deceptive, or scandalous matter; or matter which may disparage or falsely suggest a connection with persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols, or bring them into contempt, or disrepute; or a geographical indication which, when used on or in connection with wines or spirits, identifies a place other than the origin of the goods and is first used on or in connection with wines or spirits by the applicant on or after one year after the date on which the WTO Agreement (as defined in section 3501 (9) of title 19) enters into force with respect to the United States.”

            There is an argument to be had that there is a prior restraint issue to the extent that the Act bans registration of “immoral” or “disparaging” marks. But the notion that the Redskins case, if the Redskins lost, would represent a new step on a slippery slope towards government-enforced political correctness is simply incorrect – that step was taken long ago (IIRC, it was part of the original Lanham Act in 1946) and has, no doubt, formed the basis for many a trademark denial. One example: this clause was successfully used to deny trademark registration to OJ Simpson’s attempts to register his name and his nickname (“The Juice”) in 1999-2000. The point is that other groups, of all political leanings, have been using this clause to prevent trademark registrations for decades. It seems wrong to suddenly get our panties in a bunch about it when the group that would benefit from the language is American Indians but not worry about it when the group is people who are offended by OJ, or pornography, etc. The argument has to be that 15 USC 1052(a) needs to be repealed to allow/require the registration of all marks, no matter how offensive or derogatory, or that American Indians should be able to take advantage of it just like any other group.Report

  11. A. Jay Adler says:

    Again, I think you’re arguing with a straw man. You’d have to cite me the language from my post that troubles you. As I said in my last comment, if there is, indeed, a case in trademark law to be made for the plaintiffs in the Redskins suit, then I do hope they might prevail if they take the case to the Supreme Court. In that case, the decision would have been based on trademark law, and I don’t see why that should be a problem for you. But it wouldn’t address my concerns at all.

    The suit and Scalia anecdote provided the originating impulse for my post. I think it’s clear that I’m arguing about social consciousness. (Though I do believe that Johnson v. M’Intosh, which is scandalously racist, should be overturned.) That’s why I focused on an issue of symbolism. I’ve even been arguing for some time that the Individual Indian Money Trust Fund suit should not, after thirteen years, be resolved in the courts, but through legislation.

    Now, I hate to tie one hand behind your back, but it would be swell if any future comments managed to omit the term “postmodern.” In fact, I am very unfashionable among academic litterateurs in not being an adherent of postmodern theory. Our exchange is reminding me of one I had with a conservative at another blog. Rather than address the specific issue of the post, he kept setting me up as the poster boy for all of his resentments against liberalism. Is there anything you object to about the change in consciousness for which I argue – including recognition of the impropriety of Indian-named teams?Report

    • Well, I really can’t think of any origin for concepts like “domineering mentality of conquest” and calls for their criticism and reconceptualization except from post-modern critical theory, so if the groundrules do not allow identification and critique of those foundations, I’ll just have to pass.Report

  12. A. Jay Adler says:

    No, Jason, it’s just that for some reason you want to argue a different subject from the one I posted about. You’ve latched onto one phrase I used – “dominating mentality of conquest.” I would associate that kind of idea with postcolonial theory, some of which I agree with and some of which I don’t. You seem to prefer – much like a deconstructionist, I must say – to use that one phrase to create a construct of meaning around my post about which to argue other than the meaning I ascribe to the post as a whole. As I say, this doesn’t take fancy theorizing. Here are the issues. Did Europeans conquer the native inhabitants of this hemisphere (I’m focusing on the U.S.) or did they not? Did they do so in a manner dishonest, reprehensible, and even genocidal? Has there been much in the manner of social policy and general cultural awareness to take mental and moral stock of this history and to attempt to rectify, as much as humanly possible, the consequences of it? If not, can we not say, that the non-Native population stands in relation to the Natives as a conquering people in relation to the conquered – and one thing conquerors do in relation to the conquered, in a variety of ways, is dominate them. That, then, would be the basis for the argument I make about team names and mascots.

    You don’t need to have been exposed to a lick of post-any-kind-of theory to look at the situation in this kind of direct, common-sensical and plain language way. If your answer to any of those questions is no, then we know where we disagree, but in any event that disagreement will be independent of late twentieth-century theorizing, as is, too, what happened to Native Americans long before those theories were conceived and what is or isn’t happening to them now.Report