Years ago, on ESPN, I saw a young African-American player on the Washington Redskins‘ roster interviewed about the periodic controversy over his team’s name. The interviewer asked, quite straightforwardly, ‘Do you think the team should change its name?’ The young man, looking worried–perhaps knowing he stood a good chance of offending someone and aware of his own peculiar standing in the debate– replied quickly, ‘If they are offended, then I think we should change the name.’
The ‘they’ in that response are Native Americans, America’s most invisible community. They aren’t extinct–word has it they still exist on reservations–but you wouldn’t know it from the way the Redskins continue to hold on to their moniker. Or the Cleveland Indians their grinning, leering, feathered mascot. You wouldn’t know it either from the drearily familiar manner in which this debate bogs down every time its embers are raked over: in one corner, those who find these teams’ names and mascots offensive and racist, and in the other, those who shriek ‘political correctness!’ and urge everyone to take the proverbial chill pill. (My posts on this blog should make clear which corner I occupy.)
There is a logic of sorts to the visible, persistent indifference of sports teams–multi-million dollar corporations, each and every one of them. Why should the Washington Redskins or the Cleveland Indians bother? Are there any Native Americans on the boards of the corporations that sponsor them and that might initiate a withdrawal of monies? Are there any Native American Senators or Congressmen who might speak up against them? Heck, do these teams have any Native American fans who might be offended and be able to enlist political and economic support for their complaints? There is no constituency to be offended, no demographic to be consulted.
There is, in short, no commercial imperative to change. There is plenty of incentive not to: the Redskins and the Indians, might, god forbid, look like they had caved; they might look like they weren’t ‘man enough’ to resist the forces of complaint and ‘victimhood.’ Their fans, those who happily buy their tickets and merchandise, and fill their stadiums, all the while emptying their own wallets, certainly don’t care.
It says something about the lack of political visibility, power and reach of the Native American community that this debate persists, that these descriptions still pervade American sporting life. In the extensive catalog of insults directed at that community, these caricatures and derogatory terms are merely the latest entries; the cries of ‘get over it and play the game’ just the latest version of ‘keep your head down, shut up, and keep moving.’ And besides, a community confined to impoverished tracts of land, and battling with poverty, alcoholism, and some of the highest murder and rape rates in the country has much else on its mind.
From displacement to betrayal to humiliation to massacres to insults; America isn’t quite done with its indigenous people. Stick around a while folks, there may be yet another trick up its sleeve.