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Hail to the Redskin Potatoes:

I am usually unmoved when activist groups attack the names of various athletic teams for alleged ethnic or racial insensitivity. I don't believe that names like the Cleveland Indians, Atlanta Braves, Florida Seminoles, or Fighting Illini are inherently disrespectful or demeaning. And, from the survey data I've seen in the past, it seems that most Native Americans feel the same way (and I would reconsider my views if I learned otherwise). There is, however, one prominent exception: the Washington Redskins. If there are racially insensitive name in sports, this is it.

Washington plays its first game of the season tonight, and the Washington Post uses the occastion to suggest it's time to change the name.

The Washington Redskins start their season tonight and, as most sports fans will attest, it is a time to think of endless possibilities. . . . We share in the excitement, but in truth we also are embarrassed to embrace a team that is so terribly named.
The editorial also suggests a test for determining whether a team name is offensive:
We take team owner Daniel M. Snyder at his word that he sees the nickname as an honor, and we appreciate how hard it is to abandon well-loved traditions. By the same token, it really is not up to the offender to characterize the nature of the offense. We can't imagine Mr. Snyder, or anyone else for that matter, sitting in a room of Native Americans and referring to them as Redskins.
By this standard, many other sports names, such as those mentioned above, are okay, but "Redskins" clearly flunks the test — unless, of course, the team mascot is changed to a redskin potato.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. American Indians' Views of the Redskins:
  2. Hail to the Redskin Potatoes:
Jeremy Pierce (mail) (www):
I agree with you about the names of the Indians and the Braves, but what about their mascots?
9.11.2006 11:08am
AF:
I personally wouldn't refer to Native Americans as "Braves" in their presence.
9.11.2006 11:11am
DK:
Umm, the Atlanta Braves' mascot is a baseball-headed man named "Homer". Whom exactly do baseball heads offend?
9.11.2006 11:21am
Ron Hardin (mail) (www):
Crayola renamed the Indian Red crayon in fact, avoiding crayon insult.

John &Ken commentary http://rhhardin.home.mindspring.com/johnkencut.indianred.ram (March 11 1999, approx)
9.11.2006 11:26am
NYU 2L:
And Cleveland's official mascot these days is Slider, not Chief Wahoo. For that matter, the last time I was at the Indians stadium, I don't remember seeing much of Chief Wahoo at all.

(Though one of my complaints about Cleveland are our silly mascots. I understand that the Indians team name precludes a somewhat reasonable mascot, and there's not much you can do with the Browns, but the Cavaliers mascot shouldn't be a cute dog. I demand knights in armor!)
9.11.2006 11:31am
A. Nonymous (mail):
DK: The NY Mets have also have a giant baseball head mascot called Mr. Met. I am offended that Atlanta stole our idea.

As for the claim "If there are racially insensitive name in sports, this is it." I would claim one more Southeastern Oklahoma State Savages, renamed the "Savage Storm" only this year.

However this can become absurd. Take the College of William and Mary "Tribe". The NCAA (having let Florida State keep the Seminole head as the logo, the name, and the guy on horseback with the flaming spear at the start of every football game) told W&M that they had to get rid of not the name "Tribe" but the two feathers that are attached to the letter M in W&M which serves as the team's logo.

Finally, as to the idea of the Redskin Potatoes as an inoffensive mascot, I quibble. I have seen Idaho's "Spuddy Buddy", which is their state's agriculture mascot. If a team had a dancing potato on the side lines I do not think anyone would be offended. Distrubed beyond belief to see a dancing spud, yes. Offended? No.

But imaging playing for a a team that wanted to depict you as basically a pile of raw starch? If someone walked up to me and said "You are a Potato!" I would consider those fighting words.
9.11.2006 11:35am
Eh Nonymous (mail) (www):
One of the first Language Log posts by Geoff Nunberg (in fact, by anyone) was about the D.C. Dist. Ct. decision reinstating the trademark. See this post.
9.11.2006 11:47am
Stephen F. (mail) (www):
If someone walked up to me and said "You are a Potato!"

We fully agree that the nickname "Redskin Potato" is silly and demeaning to the team.

Sincerely,
The Anaheim Mighty Ducks
9.11.2006 11:56am
JohnAnnArbor:
They could hold a contest to see which tribe wants their name on the Washington team.
9.11.2006 12:00pm
oops:
Stephen F: I think you've inadvertently made the wrong point. The hockey team you are referring to was recently bought by Henry Sameuli, and he officially changed the name from Mighty Ducks of Anaheim to Anaheim Ducks.
9.11.2006 12:25pm
lsu (mail):
Being from New Orleans, I'm curious to know what some may think of the Miami Hurricanes? Is that insensitive?
9.11.2006 12:29pm
Houston Lawyer:
The new professional soccer team here in Houston was to be named the 1836s, after the year of the Republic of Texas's independence from Mexico. Alas, this was deemed offensive to the politically correct Mexican Americans and the team name was changed to the Dynamos.

We still have Robert E. Lee high school here. It's mascot is the fighting rebels. I believe that the demographics of the school have now changed such that it is about 90% Black.
9.11.2006 12:35pm
A.S.:
lsu:

What do you think of this NY Times article:


FOOTBALL; Where Katrina Lingers, Football Is a Refuge
By JERE LONGMAN
Published: September 1, 2006

Last year, nothing floated through the goal posts of the ruined high school here but the storm surge from Hurricane Katrina. Now football is again being played in lower Plaquemines Parish, a rudder-like peninsula below New Orleans that steers the Mississippi River to its delta. There is a new school, South Plaquemines High, and a chance for a new start Friday night against Belle Chasse, in upper Plaquemines.

''This is bigger than us,'' Roger Halphen, an assistant coach at South Plaquemines, told his players at practice Wednesday, his voice low and wounded. ''People want to move back. They say it's going to take three months for a FEMA trailer. They're losing hope. I've seen them crying. They don't certify the levees. Businesses don't open up. We win this game, this is going to give hope to people.

''This is for the hope of south Plaquemines.''

Only four parish residents died in Katrina's pummeling wind and water, yet almost no structures survived intact in the citrus, fishing, and oil-and-gas communities of lower Plaquemines. Port Sulphur High still stands, but it remains uninhabitable except for the occasional raccoon and skittering armadillo.

Its campus is now the site of South Plaquemines High, which has consolidated wrecked schools from Port Sulphur, Buras and Boothville-Venice. The modular buildings of the new school, like the unsettled lives here, are temporary and vulnerable. Last Friday, classes were canceled when rain seeped into the improvised classrooms, which house 266 students in grades 7 through 12.

Students got to choose the new mascot, and youthful immortality prevailed. Inevitably, they chose Hurricanes.

''Two other choices were Eagles or Gators,'' Lance Wallace, a sophomore cornerback, said. ''Hurricanes sounded better. We lived through a hurricane.''


Given that, I don't feel bad about using the term "Hurricanes".

Of course, the term I find most offensive is "Yankees". Also, "Fighting Irish". And that's not just because I'm a Mets fans and also don't like Notre Dame football. But I guess insulting northerners and Irish people is OK.
9.11.2006 12:37pm
Monkberrymoon (mail):
I demand knights in armor!
If you had that, people would claim they were "crusaders" and would claim that certain other groups (which I won't name) would be offended.

Houston-
The team was actually supposed to be named for the year of Houston's founding as a city. There are those who have surmised that the whole Mexicans-will-be-offended thing was ginned up by the team in order get some publicity for them. (Certainly, IIRC, polling data on Mexican-American attitudes toward the name didn't bear out the view that they would be massively offended).

In any event, I was offended by the name Dynamos. It reminded me of Dyanmo Kiev and, thereby, communism.
9.11.2006 12:47pm
Ted Frank (www):
Jonathan, does your opinion change if the team is nicknamed the "Yids"?
9.11.2006 12:49pm
Marco Parillo (www):
This Wikipedia post does indeed claim that the Redskins name was originally intended as an honor, and a Bostonian once told me that both the Boston Braves team names were in honor of the Boston Tea Party vandals (apologies to any real Vandals). P.S. I follow the Fighting Irish in big-time NCAAF and the Yankees in MLB.
9.11.2006 12:54pm
Jonathan H. Adler (mail) (www):
Ted --

I am not sure what you mean. On first blush, I think the name "Yids" is no better than "Redskins." I am also inclined to say that, barring a specific context that would create offense, I am not sure I would view the team name "Jews" as meaningfully different than team names like "Indians," "Irish," "Quakers," and the like. Is there a reason I should feel differently?

JHA
9.11.2006 1:03pm
Houston Lawyer:
A student at a Colorado Junior College started the "Fighting Whiteys" team a few years back to let us white folks know how it felt to be made fun of. I understand that frat boys and others loved the logo and fully appreciated the humor of the situation.

My intramural basketball team was the Lonely Sheepherders and our numbers were our GPAs.
9.11.2006 1:03pm
Daniel Messing (mail):
Why is "redskins" offensive and not "blacks"? Both refer to skin color. Is it the history of the word that's offensive, that is, that "redskin" was used as a term of opprobrium and "black" was not?
9.11.2006 1:03pm
Ted Frank (www):
Apologies, Jonathan, I misread your post.
9.11.2006 1:13pm
Fub:
Stephen F. wrote:
We fully agree that the nickname "Redskin Potato" is silly and demeaning to the team.

Sincerely,
The Anaheim Mighty Ducks
In solidarity with the struggle,

The UCSC Banana Slugs
9.11.2006 1:19pm
Jesse (mail) (www):
I've read (and Wikipedia reports as well) that the Braves got their name because owner James Gaffney was a member of Tammany Hall. That makes their name doubly offensive. And the tomahawk chop that the Atlanta fans do offends me because of how dumb it is.

A friend once suggested that the Cleveland Indians should just change their logo to a picture of Ghandi.
9.11.2006 1:23pm
U.Va. 2L (mail):
Daniel:

That would be my guess. Also, it's worth noting that one of the earlier recorded instances of "redskin," though it originally applied simply to skin color, was a proclamation from the colonial government of Massachusetts in the 1700s or so announcing bounty for proof of dead Indians, including their heads, scalps, and "bloody redskin." (I don't have a cite for that, except to say that I remember learning it in a Native American History course I took in undergrad.)
9.11.2006 1:25pm
Doug Sundseth (mail):
NYU 2L: "...but the Cavaliers mascot shouldn't be a cute dog. I demand knights in armor!"

Those would be the Roundheads*. For Cavaliers, you should have big floppy hats with feathers and puff-and-slash tunics.

* Well, not "knights", really, but there you go.

ps. There seems to be a team called the Colchester RFC Roundheads. I can't imagine that tailgating at a Roundheads game would be much fun.
9.11.2006 1:27pm
HLSbertarian (mail):

In any event, I was offended by the name Dynamos. It reminded me of Dyanmo Kiev and, thereby, communism.


It's worse than that. The Houston team is actually "Dynamo" singular. It recalls an entire network of Iron Curtain sports clubs that, during Soviet rule, were largely sponsored by the KGB and its predecessors.

That said, it certainly doesn't keep this Kiev-born anticommunist from rooting hard for the modern-day Dynamo Kiev.
9.11.2006 1:36pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
Daniel Messing: In Russian -- or at least Russian as my parents taught it to me (I came to the U.S. from Russia when I was seven) -- calling people by their skin colors is indeed considered insulting. Much as you wouldn't call East Asians "yellows" in English, blacks wouldn't politely be called "chorniye" (= black) in Russian. Rather, the polite term, as I understand it, is "negr" (= negro), which is seen as scientific and not at all pejorative.

Russians who came to the U.S. in the 1970s, as we did, naturally had to be taught this important difference between Russian and American usage.
9.11.2006 1:41pm
JRL:

Why is "redskins" offensive and not "blacks"? Both refer to skin color.



As does "white."
9.11.2006 1:43pm
Law Devil (mail):

Fub wrote:

Stephen F. wrote:
We fully agree that the nickname "Redskin Potato" is silly and demeaning to the team.

Sincerely,
The Anaheim Mighty Ducks



In solidarity with the struggle,
The UCSC Banana Slugs


Your brothers (or sisters) in the struggle,
The Fighting Artichokes
9.11.2006 1:46pm
Law Devil (mail):
Sorry forgot the link.

http://www.scottsdalecc.edu/athletics/
9.11.2006 1:47pm
amnyc (mail) (www):

Being from New Orleans, I'm curious to know what some may think of the Miami Hurricanes? Is that insensitive?


The Canes did undergo a mascot revision in the early 90's: the bird (ibis) used to smoke a pipe, but is now smoke-free.
9.11.2006 1:48pm
David M. Nieporent (www):
By the same token, it really is not up to the offender to characterize the nature of the offense. We can't imagine Mr. Snyder, or anyone else for that matter, sitting in a room of Native Americans and referring to them as Redskins.

By this standard, many other sports names, such as those mentioned above, are okay, but "Redskins" clearly flunks the test — unless, of course, the team mascot is changed to a redskin potato.
But if it's not up to the offender to characterize the nature of the offense, who is it up to? The offended? But someone might be offended by anything; some people ARE offended by names like "Indian" or "Brave," after all. Why is it okay to dismiss their concerns, but not the concerns of people about the Redskins? Is the rule majority vote of the class of people who claim to be offended?

If so, would it change your mind if you heard polls showing that most Indians nowadays are NOT offended by the team name "Redskins"? Such as:

===
WASHINGTON -- A poll of American Indians found that an overwhelming majority of them are not bothered by the name of the Washington Redskins (news).

Only 9 percent of those polled said the name of the NFL team is "offensive," while 90 percent said it's acceptable, according to the University of Pennsylvania's National Annenberg Election Survey, released Friday.

Annenberg polled 768 Indians in every state except Hawaii and Alaska from Oct. 7, 2003, to Sept. 20, 2004.

The survey found little disparity between men and women or young and old. However, 13 percent of Indians with college degrees said the name is offensive, compared with 9 percent of those with some college and 6 percent of those with a high school education or less. Among self-identified liberals, 14 percent found the term disparaging, compared with 6 percent of conservatives.
====

A link to the press release is here. (PDF)
9.11.2006 1:57pm
JerryW (mail):
I come from Chicago and two of our most followed and revered teams are "The Fighting Illini" and "The Fighting Irish". Would someone please explain why the former is insulting and should be banned while the latter is rousing and widely supported? Incidently, the insignia accompanying the Fighting Irish is a cartoon like character with his fists in a fighting pose while that of the Illini is simply a man in full Indian Headdress.

Also a sports rival of ours is the Minnesota Vikings. Is that more acceptable than the Cleveland Indians?
9.11.2006 2:08pm
Matt Tievsky (mail):
I seriously doubt I can find the link, so take it for what it's worth, but I read a credible claim that "redskin" was originally used in self-reference.
9.11.2006 2:13pm
logicnazi (mail) (www):
Now I agree that this name might be very offensive. I just don't know enough native americans to say. However, it hardly follows from the mere eytymology of the term that it is offensive.

I wouldn't find a team named 'whities' offensive though one could rightly point out it doesn't have the same history as 'reskins'. Still despite the horrible history of the word 'nigger' many black people accept it as a friendly greeting in many situations.

Admitedly there are differences between this case and the ones above but I think it illustrates the point that this is really an empirical mater and once can't decide whether something is offensive or not from a priori information.
9.11.2006 2:23pm
tefta2 (mail):
Seminole tribal leaders here in Florida have issued a public statement that they are honored, not offended, to be the namesake of the winning teams at Florida State and have gone on to say, they're loyal 'Noles fans themselves.

It's too bad that sports teams, professional and collegiate, kowtowed to the know-nothings in the media PC police whose goal is to foment resentment among our American Indian population by convincing them they should be offended by the use of their tribal name in organized sports.

It's odd too that only sports teams seem to offend. I haven't seen any reports that Indians want Squaw Valley, Apache helicopters or the other countless songs, cities, rivers, towns and businesses named after them to be changed.

It seems to me that this assault on sports teams is just another attempt by the lunatic left's multi-culti factions to try to further divide us.
9.11.2006 2:58pm
Al Maviva (mail) (www):
The NY Mets have also have a giant baseball head mascot called Mr. Met. I am offended that Atlanta stole our idea.

Well, I'm macrocephalic, and I'm offended that there are giant baseball head mascots.

Other offensive sports nicknames:

- New Zealand All Blacks
- Cincinatti Reds (think of the poor communists offended by this pejorative)
- NY Knicks - which sounds like "picnic," a word some people are offended by because it sounds like the "n" word and somebody argued once that "picnic" is a synonym for taking a celebratory basket lunch to a lynching
- The LA Angels of Anaheim - this religiously named team plays in a government-supported stadium. Establishment Clause violation, anybody?
- Boston Celtics - offensive to protestant Englishmen
- Duke Blue Devils - offensive to Christians everywhere, not to mention gubernortorial candidates who have ingested colloidal silver
- Tampa Bay Devil Rays - offensive to fans, survivors of, Steve Irwin
9.11.2006 3:13pm
PersonFromPorlock:
What would be wrong with just "Washington Potatos?" I mean, truth in advertising and all that....
9.11.2006 3:21pm
Gary Imhoff (mail) (www):
Would the facts change your opinion? A 2004 National Annenberg Election Survey of American Indians found that only 9 percent of Indians found the name of the Redskins football team to be offensive. Ninety percent found it acceptable, and one percent said that they had no opinion. The press release is online at annenbergpublicpolicycenter.org.

It seems that only a small activist minority of Indians makes the name an issue. In fact, most people who campaign actively against "Redskins" are white. Is it offensive to you that they are substituting their judgment for the actual opinion of the people whom they are supposedly representing?
9.11.2006 3:25pm
Bob Flynn (mail):
Idle discussion. Violates Oliver Wendell Holmes' maxim -- "A page of history is worth volumes of logic."

I agree that no NEW teams should have controversial names. But, not a big fan of straining to purge existing team names outta politically corrupt formulations, sorry.
9.11.2006 3:32pm
JohnAnnArbor:

It seems that only a small activist minority of Indians makes the name an issue. In fact, most people who campaign actively against "Redskins" are white.

That's how I remember the Eastern Michigan University situation. They were the Hurons, now the Eagles, even though some actual Hurons were totally fine, and even honored, by the association. But PC suppression won the day....
9.11.2006 3:45pm
bob montgomery:
Cincinatti Reds (think of the poor communists offended by this pejorative)

Wikipedia:
Twice in the 1950s (the McCarthy era), the Reds, fearing that their traditional club nickname would associate them with the Communist threat, officially changed the name of the team to the Cincinnati Redlegs.

See also: Baseball-Reference.
9.11.2006 4:02pm
James Ellis (mail):
In these matters, I defer to my friend Eggshell Pete. He stopped watching many teams years ago because their names offended him deeply. Generally he found franchise names were religiously insensitive (Angels, Saints, Devils, Devilrays, Padres, Magic, Wizards, Cardinals), promoted roguish outlaw behavior and violence (Vikings, Raiders, Buccaneers, Pirates, Sabres), fawned to big money industrial interests (Steelers, Oilers, Packers, Pistons), were politically insensitive (Patriots, Yankees, Reds, Royals, Kings, Nationals, Dodgers) and made people like himself feel diminished and marginalized, either because of their average size or their lack of class, sophistication or a vacation home in the Hamptons (Giants, Titans, Capitals, Senators, Knicks, Mets and, especially, Islanders).

He quickly tired many non-offensive teams, because he couldn't keep their names straight. They all meant the same thing, whether they were birds or prey (Seahawks, Eagles, Falcons, Hawks) or regular birds (Bluejays, Cardinals, Orioles) or horses (Broncos, Colts, Mavericks, Phillies) or bears (Bears, Cubs, Bruins, Grizzlies) or big cats (Jaguars, Panthers, Lions, Tigers, Bengals) or big dogs (Coyotes, Timberwolves) or just things that are hot (Heat, Suns, Flames, Lightning).

A fear of flying obviously prevented him from watching the Astros, Supersonics, Flyers, Rockets and Jets.

The few franchises drove him to irresponsible and self destructive behavior. They urged him to drink too much (Brewers), drive too fast (Pacers), hastily spend all his cash (the Bills), and then overextend himself on credit cards (the Chargers).

It nearly ruined him.
9.11.2006 4:11pm
Craig Oren (mail):
It is my understanding that the name "Redskins" dates from the team's days in Boston, and that it is a combination of "Red Sox" and "Braves." Does anyone know if this is true?

BTW, people can also decide if they would have been happier if the Braves were named the Bees, their name at the time of the 26-inning 1-1 tie with the Brooklyn Robins in around 1920.
9.11.2006 4:45pm
DK:
FYI, the reason the Seminole tribal authorities have said they don't find FSU's use of the word is that FSU pays them a lot of money for the privilege. IMHO this is an appropriate application of the Coase theorem -- i.e. let the tribe and school negotiate a mutually beneficial deal, instead of letting third parties use it as an opportunity for posturing.

Since the Redskins are the most valuable franchise in the NFL, I'm sure they could also work out a deal with the various Indian tribal authorities. It would probably cost them less than one bad Dan Synder free agent decision.
9.11.2006 4:46pm
La. Lawyer:
Next they will be coming after a favorite local university for its mascot: the Ragin' Cajun. Would a bunch of suits in a boardroom call a cajun a ragin(g) cajun? Maybe UL should change its mascot to the more sanitized "Enthusiastic Acadians."

What a stupid, stupid test.
9.11.2006 6:33pm
HLSbertarian (mail):

BTW, people can also decide if they would have been happier if the Braves were named the Bees, their name at the time of the 26-inning 1-1 tie with the Brooklyn Robins in around 1920.


If I remember my baseball history, the "Bees" name, adopted by ownership, never stuck because the "Braves" was too popular with the fans.
9.11.2006 7:18pm
Syd (mail):

Craig Oren (mail):

BTW, people can also decide if they would have been happier if the Braves were named the Bees, their name at the time of the 26-inning 1-1 tie with the Brooklyn Robins in around 1920.


I don't think that was the nickname in 1920 because the 1914 team was the famous Miracle Braves. They did change it to the Bees for a while in the late 30s after a horrendous 38 - 115 season. (The Phillies also changed their name to the Blue Jays for a couple of years after some terrible seasons, and continued to play terribly.) The Braves were the Beaneaters in the 1890s.

One of the nicknames for the Chicago Cubs around 1906 was the Spuds.
9.11.2006 10:20pm
tefta2 (mail):
Paying owners for the privilege of using their property, in this case the name, Seminole, is part of our fine tradition of capitalism and free trade. A win-win situation which doesn't change anything I said above.

The vast majority of Indians aren't offended, so why are they allowing themselves to look petty by people who have no interest in their well being and why are team owners and colleges allowing themselves to be black-mailed into changing their traditional team names?
9.12.2006 10:54am
Rick Georges (mail) (www):
I have been a "Skins fan all of my life. I have also been a supporter of Native American causes. The name Redskins is a term of honor among football fans, and describes one of the most storied franchises in sports. Calling the team the Redskins is no more demeaning than calling New England the Patriots. Are patriotic Americans offended? Give me a break. Don't we have more serious things to worry about nowadays?
Rick Georges
9.12.2006 11:44am
Seamus (mail):
Boston Celtics - offensive to protestant Englishmen

On the contrary, as a Hiberno-American, I find offensive the gross ethnic stereotype portrayed by the emblem of the Celtics: a grinning leprechaun leaning on a shillelagh, smoking a clay pipe. You can almost hear him saying, "He's after me Lucky Charms."

(Of course, that puts me in mind of a possible TV commercial for Irish Spring deodorant soap:

(Scene: Celtics locker room, after a game)

Player One: Liam, sure an' you're a strong man.

Player Two: Aye, at times too strong.)
9.12.2006 11:52am
Seamus (mail):
why are team owners and colleges allowing themselves to be black-mailed into changing their traditional team names?

The term "blackmail" is (or should be) offensive to African Americans.
9.12.2006 11:53am
Craig Oren (mail):
Syd,

I always thought it was the Bees, but the Internet confirms your feeling that I was mistaken. thanks!
9.12.2006 12:41pm
Milhouse (www):
U.Va. 2L:

(I don't have a cite for that, except to say that I remember learning it in a Native American History course I took in undergrad.)

I suggest that you make an effort to identify everything you learned in that course, and that you haven't since verified from reliable sources; you should consider all such "facts" as probably untrue.
9.12.2006 3:17pm