Mascot morass: The role of offended by proxy

By Jayson Jacoby November 01, 2013 08:53 am

I’m inclined to dismiss the debate over sports teams’ Native American mascots as a trivial matter except for this:

The issue raises apparent contradictions, as well as questions about the context of words, that fascinate me.

I write “trivial” not to insult anybody.

My point, rather, is that if as a society we’re truly worried about Native Americans then we ought to focus on something other than the logo painted on football helmets and embroidered on the backs of cheerleaders’ sweaters.

The academic progress of kids who grow up on reservations, for instance.

Or the persistent problem of alcoholism among some tribes.

Nonetheless, the mascot controversy probably is the most publicized topic that involves Native Americans.

Just recently a couple of prominent national sports journalists joined the list of media — which includes The Oregonian — which refuse to write “Redskins” in reference to the NFL team based in Washington, D.C.

And this summer Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber vetoed a bill that would have allowed public high schools to continue using Native American mascots if officials from the local tribe approved.

Kitzhaber prefers the 2012 decision by the state Board of Education — its members are appointed, not elected, unlike members of the Legislature — that banned such mascots with the only exception being schools that had permission from a tribe to use that tribe’s actual name as the mascot, but not a more generic mascot such as “Braves.”

The most intriguing aspect of this debate is that in pursuing the commendable goal of treating an entire group with respect, it seems to me that we are telling some members of that group that their opinions don’t matter.

Which isn’t exactly respectful.

Rick Reilly, the eminent columnist for Sports Illustrated, delved into this conflict recently.

Reilly wrote about Red Mesa High School in Arizona, which, like Washington’s NFL team, uses the Redskins mascot and does so with pride.

But here’s the thing: Red Mesa’s student body is 99.3 percent Native American.

Reilly cited another high school, this one in Washington state: 91.2 percent Native American enrollment, Redskins mascot.

And he noted that a survey (admittedly, a decade-old survey) from the Annenberg Public Policy Center found that 90 percent of Native Americans polled are not offended by Redskins as a mascot, perhaps in part because Native Americans themselves apparently coined the term, according to linguists.

Obviously these are only examples, ones Reilly no doubt picked because they illustrate his theme, which is that the disdain for Redskins and similar mascots is not universal, even among the groups some of us perceive to be the most insulted.

But what about the other 10 percent in that survey?

And what about those Native Americans who don’t attend either of the high schools Reilly mentioned, but who are offended by Redskins, Indians and other mascots?

I’m not sure this is a matter which ought to be settled via the ballot box.

We needn’t as a nation condone the institutional use of offensive terms simply because a plurality of voters in some jurisdictions doesn’t object.

Yet neither am I comfortable, as has happened in Oregon, with an unelected Board of Education, aided by a governor’s veto, overriding elected officials who, with the endorsement of Native American leaders, decided that flexibility on the mascot issue is appropriate.

Flexibility, of course, is a pretty fair synonym for compromise, which is supposed to be a hallmark of America’s political system (forgive my naívete).

Reilly writes scathingly of the political correctness inherent in the movement to banish Native American nicknames. He’s right, of course, but I’m skeptical that, in this instance, the PC crowd has much momentum.

Washington’s team has been the Redskins since 1937, after all, and this isn’t the first time people have sought to replace the mascot.

Also, I don’t believe that those newspapers and journalists who refrain from publishing “Redskins” or “Indians” represent anything like the general sentiment of Americans.

Based on the aforementioned survey, the media’s disdain for the mascots doesn’t even reflect the consensus of Native Americans, which seems to me ought to be the point here.

Jayson Jacoby is editor 
of the Baker City Herald.