Sports Teams
and Identity Ownership

Our school symbol [in Bellingham, Washington], a noble chieftain's head, was abandoned several decades back in favor of a hawk, although the team nickname, Red Raiders, remained. A local tribal leader protested the change at the time, to no effect. He, as we, had been proud of our brave and noble symbol. At our class reunions, we continue to display the chieftain's head and spurn the hawk.

Ted Van Dyk, former assistant to Vice President Hubert Humphrey, "Taking the Political Pulse of a Blue-State Town," The Wall Street Journal, October 10-11, 2015, A9

The names of sports teams sometimes reflect attempts at systematization. My favorites are the football and baseball teams in Detroit, the Lions and the Tigers, respectively, and the same teams in Chicago are the Bears and the Cubs. The associations with these teams were difficult to extend. The Chicago basketball team is the Bulls, an identity that doesn't otherwise fit with the bear motif. In Detroit, the basketball team is the Pistons, which plays on the association of Detroit with the auto industry but otherwise does not bring to mind large wild cats. That would fit with the Carolina Panthers, or the University of Arizona Wildcats (immoralized in Speed [1994]), which however do not involve teams from Detroit. The hockey team Bruins would fit in Chicago, but it is actually in Boston.

Another kind of association can be found with team names in New York, where a football team is the Jets, a baseball team is the Mets, and a basketball team is the Nets. Jets, Mets, Nets. Names you could punch to. The Nets were originally the New Jersey Nets, but they recently moved to Brooklyn, which had not had its own team since the Dodgers left in 1958. Meanwhile, New York already had another baseketball team, whose name almost fits the pattern, the Knicks. The Mets and the Knicks both have names that are abbreviations of names otherwise associated with New York, "Metropolitans" and "Knickerbockers." The Jets and Nets have no such connections, and "Nets" implies nothing more than an association with basketball. The other New York baseball team, the Yankees, has a name with a local reference; but this is itself a little ambiguous. New Yorkers are generally not called "Yankees," except in the sense that all Americans can be called "Yankees." The more specific application of the term is to New England; and New York is usually not regarded as part of New England. We can fix that up, perhaps, just by defining New England as anything East of the Hudson River -- which to New Yorkers is already the boundary between Manhattan and "other" (i.e. New Jersey).

New York used to have two teams with the same name. There was the football Giants and the baseball Giants. However, the baseball team moved to San Francisco when the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles, and the football Giants have been playing at a stadium in New Jersey for quite a while. The association of "Giants" seemed to be with the tall buildings or other oversized dimensions of New York City. Teams with the same names in the same town, but in different sports, otherwise don't occur -- except for schools.

Los Angeles ended up with two teams whose names reflected associations elsewhere. The Dodgers, from Brooklyn, got their name -- in legend and speculation at least -- by dodging street cars. The basketball team in Los Angeles is the Lakers, which came from Minneapolis. Minnesota is the land of "ten thousand lakes," which bestowed their name on the team, often to the perplexity of Angeleños, who may not know the team's origin, or anything about Minnesota. Otherwise, another baseball team, the Angels, got their name from Los Angeles itself, and so, logically, have always played (except for a brief spell at the start) in Anaheim -- previously the "California Angels," but now, without moving, the "Los Angeles Angels." Los Angeles used to have a football team, the Rams, whose name had nothing to do with anything, and has subsequently moved to St. Louis, where the name, of course, works just as well.

The surpreme local association may be the Philadelphia Phillies baseball team. "Philly" itself is a common and popular abbreviation of "Philadelphia." The corresponding mascot, the "Phillie Phanatic," is a strange imaginary creature. Another strong but superficially unobvious local connection comes with the Baltimore Orioles baseball team. Other teams, like the St. Louis Cardinals or Toronto Blue Jays, use birds just as a color reference. With Baltimore, however, even as the bird provides a nice orange color, there is also the circumstance that the bird is actually named the Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula). So "Baltimore" is not just the name of the town, and "Orioles" the name of the team, but the combined name is the actual bird. I imagine that connection was hard to pass up.

Other names with local meaning get changed when the team moves. Thus, the Washington Senators became the Texas Rangers when the team moved; and the Houston Oilers became the Tennessee Titans when it moved. "Rangers," of course, has a connection to Texas history, as does the local football team, the Dallas Cowboys. The baseball Astros in Houston have a local connection to the Johnson Spaceflight Center -- hence the memorable line, "Houston, we have a problem."

Teams at colleges and other schools all have the same name. The UCLA football, baseball, basketball, etc. teams are all the Bruins. This is a function of the team name applying to the entire school and student body, something that is rare to unheard of in the names of professional sports teams. Otherwise, we see some of the same phenomena as in the professional sports teams. UCLA is the "Bruins" because the original University of Californa, at Berkeley, is the California Golden Bears. This goes back to the bear on the flag of the State of California, which is an artifact of the "Bear Flag Revolt" of 1846. Thus, like the Chicago Bears and Cubs, Berkeley and what was originally the "Southern Campus" have coordinated names -- although the Berkeley teams just seem to be called "Cal" more often than the "Bears." Other, more recent, UC campuses have not followed the motif. Most intriguing are the Banana Slugs of UC, Santa Cruz, named after a gigantic, yellow, well, slug that is found in the nearby damp coastal forests. Santa Cruz does not have much of a presence in college athletics, so we don't see Banana Slugs playing in bowl games, or the mascot that would go with it. Since this is kind of an ugly animal, the name was briefly dropped. But then a student vote was in favor of restoring it, apparently on the principle that its strangeness is suited to the students and programs at UC Santa Cruz. They seem to be right.

Of course, the matter of public interest and discourse in the names of sports teams, professional or at schools, are the names that generate controversy; and these almost exclusively involve names that refer to American Indians. Thus, the baseball team in Cleveland is just the Indians, which also used to be the name of the student body and teams at Stanford University -- before Stanford changed to The Cardinal (the venerable name, sort of, of the professional baseball team in St. Louis, and one of the names whose significance runs to no more than an example of the color used by the school, in this case red -- a color obviously preserved from the "Indian" days). Other professional teams with names of Indian reference are the Atlanta Braves baseball team, the Kansas City Chiefs football team, and, most notoriously, the Washington Redskins football team. Among colleges, there are the Florida St. Seminoles, the University of North Dakota Fighting Sioux, and the University of Utah Utes.

The argument about these names is intriguing. Acitivist Native American groups typically complain that the names are insulting and, especially in the costumes worn by mascots at games, are designed to ridicule American Indians. The NCAA (National Collegeate Athletic Association) has called them "hostile and abusive." "Redskins," especially, uses an ethnic slur and stereotype, even a racial stereotype, and thus should be offensive to all right thinking people. Dropping the names does no more than demonstrate respect and decency.

The viewpoint in these terms is extraordinary and really no less than preposterous. You do not name yourself after something in order to insult, abuse, or make fun of it, much less to express a "hostile" attitude towards, what, yourself? Sports teams, or student bodies, are named after various things, including American Indians, in order to identify with the virtues or admirable qualities that are associated with the groups. The identification with American Indians is at least in part because of the uniquely American identity of the Indians, with which some might identify, sometimes because of actual descent, and because of the mainly martial virtues associated with Indians in American history, which easily translates into athletic competition.

The warlike association may be what some regard as offensive; but this is not at all unusual in sports, where the Fighting Sioux recall the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame University, not to mention the Pittsburg Pirates baseball team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers football team, the Oakland Raiders football team (whose logo is a pirate), and the Minnesota Vikings football team, whose ethnic association -- clearly with the Scandinavian descent of many immigrants in Minnesota -- is secondary to the martial or pirating associations of the historical Vikings. The University of Hawaii teams have been the Rainbow Warriors but also, at different times and for different sports, also just the Rainbows or the Warriors. The associaton there is with the prevelance of rainbows near the mountains in Hawai'i, especially in the Mânoa Valley above the University, and with the martial history of Native Hawaiians, who mostly don't mind being reminded of the conquests of Kamehameha I (1795-1819), who founded the unified Kingdom of Hawai'i. Again, while some might consider martial or piratical qualities to be inappropriate for college students, or disturbing in any sports teams, predatory ferocity also figures in the team identification with many animals, including the Lions, Tigers, Bears, Wildcats, and the Philadelphia Eagles and Seattle Seahawks football teams, etc. Less ferocious would be the associations of the Miami Dolphins football team, where the relevant virtues seem to be the speed and intelligence of those animals, although they are actually predators too.

So, is it just that Native Americans do not want to be associated with war, piracy, and predation? I don't think so. Or is it a matter of ethnic stereotypes? If so, then the Vikings, the Fighting Irish, and the Boston Celtics basketball team (identifying with the Irish population of Boston) would have generated their own storms of controversy, with explicit stereotypes in play about Irish Catholics, Scandinavians, and, well, Irish again (the Celtic Scots, Welsh, or Bretons don't seem to figure much in the ethnic history of Boston, as it is remembered). But that has not happened. The Notre Dame football team is a thing of legend, at this point ("Win one for the Gipper"), and it would not be the same with some inoffensive, politically correct name (perhaps "Parrots," to keep the green color -- that would be good for a laugh).

Instead, I think that the stated reasons for the protest against Indian sports mascots are all a smoke screen -- and deceptive, if not insincere. The real reason is simply that most or all the people on the teams called "Indians," or some variation thereof, are not actually Indians. They have no right to use those names because they are not really them. The issue thus is not insult or ridicule, but proprietary. The multiplicity of Indian Nations and Tribes have not collectively copyrighted or trademarked the name "Indian," but they may think that they have the moral right to do so. Morally, at least, they own the identity. The students or athletes using their name are, in a sense, the same people who almost wiped Native Americans off the map in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. The activists thus simply wish to exercise control over their own identity; and while they may indeed think that team mascots represent them with insufficient dignity, the real issue is however they are represented, whether good or bad, without their permission.

The exception proves the rule. The Florida State Seminoles glory in their Indian name with the explicit blessing of the Seminole Nation in Florida (although they should be remembered for the tenure of physicist Paul Dirac, 1902-1984). The NCAA, now charged with enforcing political correctness, has allowed Florida State to keep its identification and mascot.

This didn't quite work out for the North Dakota Fighting Sioux. The NCAA told them that two Sioux tribes needed to assent to their name -- there are several communities in the Sioux Nation, but only two of them have a formal presence in North Dakota, the Spirit Lake Tribe and the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. One tribe agreed, and one didn't; so the NCAA told the University it would need to give up the name. Since the States of both North and South Dakota are themselves named after groups of the Sioux Nation (the Eastern Dakota, or Santee, and the Western Dakota, or Yankton-Yanktonai), this all begins to sound a little surreal. Perhaps the NCAA will next demand that the University of North Dakota stop using the name "Dakota." The North Dakota teams for the moment are left without a name -- and "North Dakota" has been ruled out, perhaps for the reason just noted -- but many fans continue defiantly to sport Fighting Sioux gear.

The situation in Utah is similar to that in North Dakota. The State itself is named after the Ute Nation; and the student body of the University of Utah is named the Utes. I still have not seen how this name stands with the NCAA or with the Ute Nation, but I certainly haven't noticed any controversy about it. Perhaps that means it has passed all the political tests.

At one level, we can sympathize with Native Americans for not wanting unrelated groups trading off their identity, especially if they don't like the particular forms that this may take. On the other hand, the complaints and protests are part of a larger political movement that is not itself at all salutary. Ethnic groups may claim proprietary control over everything that is said about them. This may mean requiring others to promote the same ethnic mythology and ridiculous self-glorification that the group, or its activists, fancies proper to itself. If this requirement is not followed, then obviously the skeptics, or historians, are enemies of the group, vicious racists, or something of the sort. I ran into this in the case of the Assyrians, who are Aramaic speaking Christians of Iraq and some surrounding areas. In the Middle Ages, this group was commonly called "Chaldeans," after the group of Aramaeans who dominated the last dynasty of the Kingdom of Babylonia. However, there was a religious schism in the Church of the East, with the "Chaldean" designation claimed by the Catholics, and the doctrinally traditional Nestorians excluded. About a century ago, after extended debate, the Nestorian community decided that it was "Assyrian," in the full sense of being the Assyrian nation that everyone otherwise believed had been destroyed, indeed annihilated, by the Medes and Babylonians in 609 BC. This improbable identification was taken up by "Assyrian" nationalists with all seriousness, to the point where skepticism voiced by anyone made them enemies of the Assyrian people. Since skepticism tended to be voiced by Christians and Jews, who also tended to have a not too positive impression of the Ancient Assyrians themselves, who were rather brutal and had misplaced ten of the original Ten Tribes of Israel, "Assyrian" nationalists then began to regard Christians and, especially, Jews as the enemies of the Assyrian people. Meanwhile, the only people who had actually been killing Modern Assyrians were Muslims, who had no more sympathy for the Ancient Assyrians, and probably less, than for Christians. Recently, the complaints against Christians and Jews have tended to fade as Muslim persecution becomes more intense. Now the Assyrians, together with Chaldeans and Syriac Orthodox and Catholic Christians, are steadily fleeing Iraq and Syria as Jihadist fanatics have advanced, literally slaughtering and enslaving Christians -- including Christian girls and women sold into sex slavery. Local Jews, who had been Aramaic speakers themselves, long ago decamped for Israel.

Assyrian nationalists were probably delighted to discover that, at the modern Stalinist university, ethnic proprietary rights could be used to claim anything and to denounce anyone who questioned it. This served well to alienate all the Christians and Jews who would be precisely the ones to be alarmed and sympathetic about the murder and mayhem inflicted on Iraqi Christians by Terrorists. A similar dynamic might serve as a caution to Native American activists. After all, if the motive of Indian sports team names was partially to identify with Indians -- with full advantage of this taken by the Florida Seminoles -- the condemnation and rejection of such names would serve precisely the opposite goal, to distance and alienate the American public from American Indians. That may be a desirable goal, if the purpose of Indian political activism is endless grievance and hostility towards all other Americans -- who sometimes respond with bogus (Ward Churchill) or questionable (Elizabeth Warren) claims of Indian ancestry [note]. But it is unlikely that such hostility serves a sensible purpose -- although recently it does seem to be the real goal, for many groups, of Leftist politics. The only purpose of such a program, in the end, is a demand for money. Liberal guilt funds identity grievance. Alienating the public with hostile attitudes is a small price to pay for the more substantial benefits of a blank check from Uncle Sam. That federal money has really done Native Americans no good is still a lesson not quite learned, despite decades of poverty on Indian Reservations and the poor rate of economic or educational progress in each new Indian generation. Of course, a traditional, pastoral lifestyle on say, the Navajo Reservation, is inevitably a matter of poverty. If people are happy with that, fine; but it cannot then be used as the basis for complaints that such poverty is due to something that someone else is not doing. In the absence of the white man, life would not have been any better, and it would be missing a few desirable things, like pick-up trucks with gunracks or satellite television. The modern Navajo homestead includes a mobile home for living and a tradtional hogan for ritual purposes -- unless the family is living in (dismal) pre-fab government housing.

A further element in this mix is the new poltical crime of "cultural appropriation," which means that nothing can be borrowed or immitated from another culture because the borrowers cannot possibly understand it or respect it the way that natives of the culture would. Or the borrowers might be tempted to make fun of it. Or have fun with it. Thus, Halloween costumes of, say, geishas, cannot be allowed because non-Asian girls or women in America cannot possibly understand the history, institutuions, or meaning of geishas in Japan. Or, students groups cannot have Mexican themed parties, even if it is just a pretext to have Mexican food and drink Margaritas (both wildly popular), because there is too much of a history of Americans making fun of Mexicans; and Anglo students cannot be trusted to observe the dignity and meaning of Mexican culture -- which of course is what any drunken college party is supposed to be about.

The absurdity of this reached a peak when children were instructed not to dress as cowboys because, of course, they aren't and cannot be expected to understand the history, dignity, and meaning of cowboy culture. Of course, somebody gets paid, well, at taxpayer expense, to think this stuff up. One wonders if Willie Nelson then counts as a cowboy or not. He sings about them -- and wears his hair like a lot of Indians do.

Where this was all headed became apparent around Halloween 2015, when the Yale University "Intercultural Affairs Committee" sent out a notice about Halloween costumes, as quoted and paraphrased by The Wall Street Journal:

"If this costume is meant to be historical, does it further misinformation or historical and cultural inaccuracies?" Watch out for insenstitivity toward "religious beliefs, Native American/Indigenous poeple, Socio-economic strata, Asians, Hispanic/Latino, Women, Muslims, etc." In short, everyone. ["Yale's Little Robespierres," November 10, 2015, A14]

When Erika Chistakis, a lecturer in early childhood education and a residential advisor, and her husband Nicholas, a Yale sociologist and physician, expressed some reservations that this perhaps had gone too far, they were vilified in a letter from "750 Yale students, faculty, alumni and others," which claimed that their reservations served to "further degrade marginalized people." Nicholas was literally confronted by a mob with screaming students who, apparently, are not only made to feel "unsafe" by Halloween costumes but also by people exercising free speech -- fortunately all caught on video. It was all a disgraceful and despicable exercise, with the added irony of students compaining about being "unsafe" while leading a screaming mob of Hitler Youth. The principal threat involved, of course, were the totalitarian principles of campus ideologues, which have long been around but that are rarely so exposed to public view. In those terms, the actual issue of Halloween costumes was secondary, and absurd.

Another example of demonizing "cultural appropriation" comes with the cancellation of yoga classes at the University of Ottawa (a Canadian province named after an Indian tribe, called a "First Nation" in Canada):

Student leaders have pulled the mat out from 60 University of Ottawa students, ending a free on-campus yoga class over fears the teachings could be seen as a form of "cultural appropriation."

Jennifer Scharf, who has been offering free weekly yoga instruction to students since 2008, says she was shocked when told in September the program would be suspended, and saddened when she learned of the reasoning.

Staff at the Centre for Students with Disabilities [?] believe that "while yoga is a really great idea and accessible and great for students... there are cultural issues of implication involved in the practice," according to an email from the centre...

The centre goes on to say, "Yoga has been under a lot of controversy lately due to how it is being practiced," and which cultures [?] those practices "are being taken from."

The centre official argues since many of those cultures "have experienced oppression, cultural genocide and disasporas due to colonialism and western surpremacy... we need to be mindful of this and how we express ourselves while practicing yoga." [Notable & Quotable, From Ottawa Sun reporter Aedan Helmer’s "Free Ottawa yoga class scrapped over 'cultural issues,'" November 20, The Wall Street Journal, November 23, 2005, A17]

We might wonder how we are going to be "practicing yoga" with the right mindfulness when the classes have been cancelled. At the same time, we might wonder exactly what "cultural genocide" and "diasporas" had been inflicted on India by Britain, when what is at issue here is the adoption by the British and others of Indian cultural practices. Indeed, from the quotation, we might wonder where the "official" of the "Centre for Students with Disabilities" thinks that yoga comes from, since India is not mentioned and the use of terms like "cultures" implies that it comes from someplace else as well, which it doesn't. The Yoga School of Hinduism is characteristic of that religion, and while some of its practices may be found elsewhere (e.g. in Buddhism), the proper idea of "yoga," , is unique to Hinduism. One is left with the impression that the "centre official" actually doesn't know anything about yoga or India but is just jerking people around for their own political agenda.

But, of course, the initial business of the Halloween costumes at Yale and the case of the strange prohibition of yoga at Ottawa were an extension of proprietary ethnic claims, which curiously always involve telling people what they cannot say or do, often on the principle that offending someone, in any way, from an aggrieved group is, or damn well ought to be, a crime. A form of political crime called "hate speech." When this phenomenon was first observed, it was called "political correctness" -- after the ideological discipline imposed by the Communist Party in the 1930's and '40's -- and the Left fell all over itself for a long time to deny (absurdly) that there was anything of the sort going on. But it was going on, and it was the beginning of the totalitarian movement that has, ironically, come to dominate American "education" -- with the specific addition of the claim that the term "political correctness" itself is a "micro-aggression," i.e. the Stalinists don't want to be identified as what they are.

Meanwhile, the Washington Redskins have been denounced by most (all?) of the Democrats in Congress and have had the trademark protection of their name stripped from them, apparently on the principle that it is an ethnic slur. Critics of the team have had their fun suggesting disparaging references to Jews or others as alternative names for teams. Why anyone would want to call themselves an ethnic slur is an absurdity that apparently does not dawn on the critics, who, usually congratuating themselves on their cleverness, don't seem to have asked the most obvious question about the business. One wonders how such a senseless construction has proved so durable in American politics, although it is obviously ignored by most Americans and generates heat only in the political class who, as in every good law school, has learned to swallow camels and strain at gnats. Its very irrationality may now signify its importance to post-modern intellectuals who despise logic, truth, and honesty and glory in the naked lies of their political representatives.

It is a principle of good manners and common sense that you do not go where you are not wanted. In those terms, if Indian Nations object to a team or a school using some sort of Indian name, the reasonable response might be, "You don't want us; you don't like us; OK, have it your way." If the reasons given for the objection are ridiculous, that doesn't make much difference. In modern politics, of course, getting in someone's face and imposing yourself on them, to the extent of protestors barging into restaurants just to annoy the diners with their (unrelated) political grievances, or gay activists demanding that Christian photographers and others provide services or participate in their gay wedding (which now even the leftist Pope Francis has compared to a Satanic rite), and suing them over it, is not unheard of. However, since sports is supposed to be fun, the militant imposition of something unwelcome, however misconstrued, hardly seems like the right idea in the context. If Native American groups later regret alienating the public, they might, like the Flordia Seminoles, solicit a local identification.

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Copyright (c) 2015 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved

Sports Teams and Identity Ownership, Note

I was told by a great-uncle, much as Warren said she was, of some such Indian ancestry. Warren, however, used this to obtain affirmative action preference on her application to Harvard Law School, which subsequently boasted that they had a "Native American" in the school. This kind of thing is probably not what the originators of Affirmative Action had in mind. Warren subsequently has been dubbed "Faux-cahontas."

Hailing from Oklahoma, where the Capital of the Cherokee Nation was at Tahlequah, it is not impossible that there could have been some truth to Warren's claim, however little her looks, family, upbringing, or prospects would have reflected an identity more reasonably commensurable or identifiable with that of modern Native Americans. Similarly, my own family, from which my own corresponding story derives, was from Arkansas, which was itself also a destination of Cherokee coming from the East, even before the Trail of Tears, including the remarkable and brilliant sage Sequoia. So my claim on the consideration of the Harvard Law School may be as great as Warren's. I don't think I will put it to the test.

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