February 22, 2013 4:58 PM
Today on ESPN’s “Outside The Lines,” there has been an interesting debate about whether the Washington Redskins should rename the team. In the interest of full disclosure, I am a native Texan and lifelong Cowboys fan, but I am also an alumnus of Florida State University (more on that later). I must come down on the side of changing the name.
First, consider the nickname itself. It is derogatory, no doubt about it. The term is dehumanizing. Extend this supposed acceptability to any other race. Could we tolerate a team called the San Francisco Slants? What about the Memphis Minstrels? Obviously, those would not fly. One suggestion during the ESPN debate was whether Washington could shorten its nickname, as have the NBA’s New York Knicks (short for Knickerbockers) and MLB’s New York Mets (short for Metropolitans). I think “Skins” might be an ironically poor choice in the city where Dr. King said that is not how people should be judged.
However, I must address the potential inequity in my position as an FSU alumnus, athletic booster and former faculty member. While there has been a long-standing and recently reinforced arrangement whereby the university has the support of the Seminole Tribe of Florida, there are still two main troubling aspects. One is a statue near the student union celebrating diversity at FSU, featuring the first black graduate, varsity athlete and homecoming queen (now called “princess”). However, the princess is wearing a war bonnet with a long feathered train. While an accurate representation of what was worn in 1970, it had no bearing on what authentic Seminoles wore.
Second, the more notable and troubling iconic FSU image is that of “Chief Osceola” riding in on “Renegade” to plant a flaming spear before every home football game. It is a thrilling moment that arouses the fans but if you look closely, the rider is a white student wearing red face paint. I actually sent an email to the former university president, back when I was on the faculty, proposing that the role should be portrayed by a member of the Seminole Tribe, perhaps on full scholarship. I can only imagine the furor if any university had a student mascot in blackface …
The Redskins logo recalls the old Buffalo Nickel, generic but not cartoonish. The FSU logo is angrier and does not favor the portrait of the historic Chief Osceola. In fact, FSU makes much of being “unconquered,” a thin reference to Chief Osceola never having been defeated during the Seminole Wars but, instead, captured by US troops while under a flag of truce. The FSU nickname of Seminoles defeated the classy runner-up “Statesmen,” which no other university uses, to my knowledge.
The variety of sports teams using Native American iconography has ranged from innocuous (the Kansas City Chiefs) to appalling (Chief Nok-A-Homa of the Atlanta Braves and Chief Wahoo of the Cleveland Indians). However, I am hard-pressed to come up with any other pro or college teams that actively spoof an ethnic group.
I have racked my Scots-Irish brain … wait for it … and only come up with the Boston Celtics (who mispronounce the very word; it’s a hard “C”) and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. I think I resent being portrayed as a belligerent brawler the same way my Native American countrymen might see this issue.