Friday, August 12, 2005

Mascot Madness

Usually when the word "madness" is used in the same sentence with NCAA, people are talking about the popular basketball tournement held every March. But last week, the term was widely connected with the very unpopular NCAA ruling about Indian mascots. It is certainly true that some sports mascots are offensive, and represent embarrassing racist stereotypes well left behind, and certainly many of the more egregious ones have concerned Native Americans (such as Redskins or Savages). But in overreaching to kowtow to political correctness, the NCAA has set itself up for ridicule. Isn't it possible that some nicknames might actually respectfully honor Native American tribes? Florida State University, for one, is right to defend their use of the Seminoles nickname and Chief Osceola as their mascot. After all, even the Seminole tribe approves the FSU Seminoles, so who is the NCAA defending? A number of commentators wondered whether the Notre Dame Fighting Irish might be next in the line of identity politics casualties, since that fierce little leprechaun might be deemed pretty offensive to those of Irish descent. One speculated that by the time political correctness was done, we'd have only animal or vegetable mascots. Even that's not entirely safe ground. Just ask the University of South Carolina Gamecocks, who are being objected to by PETA. This issue has been around for a while, and many schools and professional sports organizations, to their credit, have voluntarily cleaned up their act where needed. Some holdouts may linger, such as the Cleveland Indians, who are pushing the story that their team was renamed to the Indians in 1915 to honor Louis Sockalexis, a Penobscot tribesman who played for Cleveland (then the Spiders) in 1897-99, and was the first native American pro ball player. (The story is likely a bit of revisionist history, and their mascot, Chief Wahoo, is a cartoonish charicature with little respect to any real native American traditions.) And there are other groups who may rightly be offended by school nicknames (like, um, the Ole Miss Rebels). If I were a native American, I might be a bit put off by the name of San Diego's pro ball club, the Padres. As any child who grew up in California well knows, the padres, lead by Fr. Junipero Serra, were instrumental in settling California for Spain, and establishing a network of missions up and down the state. But from a native American point of view, the padres surely rank alongside Andrew Jackson as being practically genocidal. (Hmm, I wonder if there are any schools nicknamed "Old Hickories", for that matter.) Meanwhile, down the road at San Diego State, their Aztecs nickname escaped the NCAA ban once the organization realized that there were no Aztecs alive to be offended. I'm not sure why the same argument doesn't work for the Illinois Illini, who only live on in the name of the state and the state university's mascot. Sensible distinctions need to be made between respectable ethnic team identities and the offensive ones. I hope to see the Seminoles and the Illini at next year's March Madness.

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