When traditional sports team's mascots are offensive

We shouldn't have offensive sports logos, but we also shouldn't assume everything is offensive.

In the world of sports, nothing is more important than tradition. Teammates often won’t acknowledge a rookie’s first home run. The Detroit Lions and Dallas Cowboys always play at home on Thanksgiving, and the winner of the Masters tournament always gets the green jacket.

How far do traditions go, though? What happens when longstanding traditions become offensive?

A lot of attention has been given to the Washington Redskins over the course of the last couple seasons over, well, just about everything relating to their organizational branding. The name itself is slur, and a long time target of pro-Native American groups since the '60s. 

The logo for the team isn’t much better. As if the name wasn’t bad enough, the logo is a Native American man with literal red skin.

With all the attention on the Redskins, it’s felt like other teams have “gotten away” with being offensive, at least until recently. One of those teams is the Cleveland Indians.

It’s not that the team name is offensive, there’s nothing inherently wrong with using “Indian” over “Native American.” It’s so embedded in the culture that it doesn’t make much difference, and most Native Americans would rather be referred to by their specific tribe anyway.

What’s offensive about the Cleveland Indians is one of their logos, Chief Wahoo, who has been used by the team since the '50s. Much like the Washington Slurs, the Indians logo features a caricature of a Native American with redskin, an abnormally large nose and toothy smile. Recently, it’s drawn more ire, as more and more people and publications have taken a stance against it.

Tradition doesn’t protect you when you’re being offensive. However, it’s important not to get too carried away. That may sound like I’m being hypocritical, but let me explain.

People have tried to tell me something like, “Well, if Chief Wahoo is offensive, so is Lucky from the Boston Celtics!”

No, no — Lucky's not offensive. Why? Lucky is a leprechaun, the short creatures from Irish folklore. Leprechauns, unlike Native Americans, are mythical creatures. They don’t actually exist, so you can depict them however you’d like. 

The same thing applies to ASU. When the Pope came to town he spoke at the football field. In order not to offend the Holy See, the school covered up any mention of “Devil” or pitchforks. I understand why it happened — the Pope speaking at your school is a massive honor — but the argument could be made that devils and gods, like the leprechaun, are objects of mythology.

I would argue that Sparky is much less offensive than Chief Wahoo on the same merit that Lucky from the Celtics isn't offensive. Those teams and mascots are based on something that might not even exist or existed thousands of years ago.

That’s an important distinction to make. This isn’t an all-or-nothing deal, and that all too often calls to change offensive team names becomes just another thing the Social Justice Warrior crowd picks up as it’s new cause.

If we let that attitude prevail, your weekend baseball games could consist of the Arizona Circles vs. the Chicago Trapezoids.

There are teams out there today that use Native American imagery effectively and non-offensively in their branding. The Chicago Blackhawks of the National Hockey League are a great example of how to represent a region’s history in an appropriate way. The Atlanta Braves do this as well, and so do the Florida State Seminoles.

It’s possible to pay respect to your heritage without being offensive. It’s another thing entirely to create a caricature of an entire group of people.

Related links:

ASU's Project Humanities educates on cultural appropriation

Cultural sensitivity is more complex than you think

Reach the columnist at cjwood3@asu.edu or follow @chriswood_311 on Twitter.

Editor’s note: The opinions presented in this column are the author’s and do not imply any endorsement from The State Press or its editors.

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