What's in a name? Very much, it seems

December 18, 2009|By ALLAN POWELL

For some, Nov. 16, 2009, will be remembered as a day of infamy. For others, it will be just another day in the life of a mistaken debate.

The reason for this mixed reaction was the refusal of the Supreme Court to accept the case in which Native Americans wished to bring a halt to the use of "Redskins" as a trademark. This same debate erupts periodically in Cleveland, a city that also has a team using an Indian as a symbol.

There will be intense and sincere voices supporting both sides in what looks to be a never-ending clash of opinion. Years of research on the French and Indian War period has resulted in a profound empathy for the plight of Native Americans. They have good reason to harbor deep resentments at the range of atrocities inflicted upon them by Euro-Americans. In addition to sharing new and deadly infectious diseases, they were relentless in repression, exploitation, dispossession and brutality.


However, it is a stretch to include the use of "Redskins" as another offense on the grounds that it is a deliberate attempt to disparage, bring contempt or disrespect. The owners of the team aver that the name was meant to honor a former head coach, who was a Native American. This suggests that we might reflect on how names for the various teams in sports are selected.

Immediately, we realize that whatever name is picked, it is based upon approval and flattery. Lions, Tigers and Bears all are known for their power. Orioles, Cardinals and Ravens are known for their beauty enough to be state birds. Surely, the endurance, prowess, speed and agility are well-known and admired abilities of Native Americans.

On no less than eight occasions, I have been involved in the selection of a name for a newly formed organization. In every case, the name eventually settled upon was on the basis of being well-known, admired and approved people, locations or events. Why would this not also be true in selecting a team name?

The charge made by the representative for the Indians was that the name "Redskins" was "patently offensive, disparaging and demeaning and perpetuates a centuries-old stereotype." The only way to determine accurately if this charge is true is to ask each fan if hearing the term "Redskin" conjures up in their mind a degrading and demeaning mental image - generally referred to as a stereotype.

The Dictionary of Sociology defines a stereotype as a "group accepted image or idea, usually verbalized and charged with emotion. Simplified, even caricaturized conception of a character, personality, aspect of social structure or social program which stands in the place of accurate images in our minds."

With this in mind, we are faced with a choice. There is clear evidence that the choice of a name for a team in sports is based upon respect and admiration. Others are equally convinced of insensitivity to the feelings of those who are offended.

It must be recognized that a stereotype might, in fact, exist. But that in no way means that the caricature is widely accepted. A stereotype might lodge largely in the eye of the beholder and might not reflect widespread acceptance of an unflattering image.

Both sides of this sensitive issue might need to cultivate their sensitivity faculties. One side might be too willing to see a fault where none exists, and the other might well not be the generous person they had supposed. In time, honest introspection might bring about a meeting of minds.

Allan Powell is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.

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