Respect the Person, Not the Logo: The Psychological Effects of Racist Symbols in Sports

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Washington Redskins v Minnesota Vikings

According to a 2001 poll of Native Americans in the United States conducted by Indian Country Today, a Native American community news source, 81 percent of respondents indicated that the use of American Indian names, symbols, and mascots are “predominantly offensive and deeply disparaging to Native Americans.”

“Indian mascots, by today’s standards, would be offensive to any other race if portrayed in a similar manner,” notes Fred Blue Fox, a Sicangu Lakota cited in the Indian Country Today article that contains the poll. “Indian peoples are no different in regarding the depiction of eagle feathers, face paints, and war objects such as tomahawks. These are all sacred to the people and therefore have no place in any sort of public display, let alone mascots.”

Dr. Harvey Gunderson, President of the Religious Americans Against ‘Indian’ Nicknames & Logos (RAAINL) claims that the use of Native American mascots is psychologically harmful to American Indians. Citing the research of University of Arizona professor Dr. Stephanie Ann Fryberg, Dr. Gunderson states that American Indians experience lower self-esteem upon exposure to race-based sports nicknames, logos, and mascots.

In addition to reduced self-esteem, Dr. Gunderson claims that Native Americans are victims of “identity theft.” He has found that in communities where the high school uses a nickname like the “Indians,” non-native students will take pride in being an “Indian” just like their father and their grandfather. It is as though they become part of the Native American community by going to a school with an American Indian mascot.

To put it in perspective, imagine how upset African American students would be if their peers put on black makeup and chanted “Let’s go Blacks! Let’s go Blacks!” at the school’s home games. Envision a Caucasian student telling their peers that they are proud to be a “Black,” just like their parents who attended the school years before them.

Offensive Native American nicknames and logos are not only used by high school athletic programs; they are present in professional sports as well. Five professional teams, the Cleveland Indians and Atlanta Braves of Major League Baseball, the Washington Redskins and Kansas City Chiefs of the National Football League and the Chicago Blackhawks of the National Hockey League have American Indian logos.

Dr. Gunderson believes that league officials, team owners, and coaching staffs should educate themselves on the detrimental effects of these logos and speak out against their use. In his opinion, “Those who refuse to utilize their influence and/or authority are essentially condoning the institutional racism that is being perpetrated on society by the team owners.”

Proponents of the Chiefs organization may feel that a name change would be absurd because of the team’s historical significance as one of the original franchises in the league.

However, Dr. Gunderson states that the Chiefs longevity in the NFL does not justify the continuation of a harmful race-based practice. “As the circumstances change, situations that have been considered acceptable in the past are no longer acceptable.”

Fifty years ago no research had been conducted to statistically and scientifically study the psychological effects of racial stereotypes. According to Dr. Gunderson, most of the research on the effect of racial stereotypes has been conducted since that time.

The Cleveland Indians were established in 1915, 45 years before the Kansas City Chiefs. The club’s nickname and cartoonish logo, named “Chief Wahoo,” which appears on the hats of the players, have been criticized for perpetuating Native American stereotypes. In the 1997 World Series, the Indians’ most recent appearance, three Native American protestors were arrested for disorderly conduct, but later acquitted in Bellecourt v. Cleveland.

Seventeen years later, in 1932, the Washington Redskins were established as an NFL franchise. The term “redskin” was used by American Indian bounty hunters who used to skin Native Americans and turned in the bloodied membrane for a living.

“You can see that [this nickname] refers to a very sad and outrageous time in our history,” says Kelly Gamboa, a respected member of the San Jose community. “How would people react to a team being called the Gassed Jews? It is no less an insult to us.”

In Dr. Gunderson’s words, “They so often say that they ‘respect the logo.’ It is strange that these people talk about ‘respecting the logo,’ about respecting an image of an Indian… rather than respecting real American Indians. But that difference is what this is all about!”

 

About Tom Schreier

Tom Schreier covers Minnesota sports for 105theticket.com’s Cold Omaha and can be heard on The Michael Knight Show from 2-3:00 on weekdays in the Twin Cities. He has written for Bleacher Report and the Yahoo Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @tschreier3.
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