For many fans, sporting a Chief Wahoo baseball cap at Cleveland’s Progressive Field or singing along to the “Tomahawk Chop” during an Atlanta Braves’ game is simply a tradition within the world of sports.
But for members of Native American communities throughout the country, as well as for individuals who advocate for increased recognition of Native American rights, these depictions of Native American culture are often considered offensive and distasteful.
“Often, when I (talk about race-based sports traditions) in several of the classes that I teach, I hear students say, ‘Why are you so sensitive?’ ‘Do you hate baseball?’ ‘Do you hate sports?’” said Christine Ballengee-Morris, a professor in the Department of Arts Administration, Education and Policy and coordinator of the American Indian Studies program. “(I want them to understand that) I don’t hate sports … I love sports. (But) for me, it is not just the sports mascot. It also leaks into other areas that we should be paying attention to and question.”
Ballengee-Morris said she hopes to encourage students to analyze the historical motives and ramifications behind sports traditions, logos and team names. She plans to address these issues in her role as a facilitator in OSU’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion’s dialogue and discussion event “Why Are We Still Debating Race-Based Sports Mascots?” scheduled for Thursday.
The discussion event is set to begin with a facilitated discussion between panelists, and audience members will have a chance to ask questions and discuss the issue further at the end of the session.
“It really reinforces the popularization of racial and ethnic stereotypes,” Ballengee-Morris said of the use of Native American imagery by professional, collegiate and high school sports teams.
According to MascotDB.com, a database that has information on nearly 50,000 professional, college and high school team mascots in the United States, more than 2,000 teams have some sort of reference to Native American culture in its team name, logo or mascot.
In recent years, several teams throughout the nation have been under pressure to change mascots deemed racially derogatory or offensive.
On Nov. 2, a crowd of approximately 4,000 protestors stood outside of the University of Minnesota’s TCF Bank Stadium with signs reading “RACIST,” “Change the Name Now” and “Stop Racism in the NFL,” according to The Washington Post. The group was protesting the game between the Minnesota Vikings and the Washington Redskins, as they deemed the Redskins’ logo offensive. The logo shows the bust of a dark-skinned Native American man with feathers in his braided hair.
In an interview with ESPN.com in August, Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder said he doesn’t have to change the team’s name.
“A Redskin is a football player. A Redskin is our fans. The Washington Redskins fan base represents honor, represents respect, represents pride,” he said.
In Ohio, the Cleveland Indians have also been asked to change their team name and mascot, which depicts a red-faced smiling Native American man with a feather sticking out from behind his ear.
In August, Ohio Sen. Eric Kearney introduced a resolution that would encourage the baseball team to acknowledge racial insensitivity and change the name and mascot, named Chief Wahoo, according to the Associated Press.
Although Cleveland continues to use the image of Chief Wahoo, the chief is one of three logos the team displays on merchandise and in marketing materials. Over the past season, Cleveland started to use the “block C” logo. This decision, however, was “not reacting to anything in the news,” Curtis Danberg, the Indians’ senior director of communications, said in an interview with New Republic magazine in October 2013.
“There’s no conspiracy theory here,” he said. “(The gradual move toward the block C logo is about) celebrating Cleveland.”
John Low, an assistant professor of comparative studies at OSU’s Newark campus and an affiliated faculty member within the American Indian Studies program, said that although OSU’s mascot is not racially contentious, many Ohio high schools have mascots or team names derived from Native American culture.
Low, who is also set to participate as a facilitator in the ODI discussion event, said based on statistics he calculated last year, approximately 228 Ohio high schools have a mascot or team name taken from some aspect of Native American culture.
“Ohio was No. 1 overall with Indian-themed mascot usage,” he said.
The use of race-based sports mascots — at any skill level — is viewed as offensive by Low, who identifies as Potawatomi Indian.
“Sports mascots have been on my radar most of my life,” he said. “People do still assume that Indians look like mascots, and that real Indians should vaguely resemble mascots, or that (mascots) are some sort of accurate representation (of Native Americans). I don’t look like a mascot, but mascots don’t look like Indians.”
Ballengee Morris agreed, and said she thinks that although OSU’s Brutus Buckeye does not represent any racial stereotypes, the OSU community should still encourage dialogue on the subject.
“We are not tunnel-visioned. We are not just about Ohio State,” she said. “We are students and we are faculty and we are all global members and we need to know what issues are and we need to think about it and we need to have dialogue about it and possibly be a part of change.”
Robert Decatur, director of Diversity and Inclusion’s Campus Change Program and one of the organizers of the discussion event, said he thinks this topic will interest many members of the OSU community, and will be a fitting way to acknowledge Native American heritage month.
“(The discussion) ties into the whole argument of being able to define yourself and I think people should have the opportunity to do that,” he said. “If people are saying that they are bothered by the mascots or bothered by the names of professional sports teams, then I think we should listen and allow people to define who they are, and whether or not that offends them. It is not up to us to judge whether or not it is offensive”
Decatur said he hopes that attendees come away from the session having learned something new, and that they continue the dialogue with others.
“I don’t want the discussions to be self-contained. I want the discussions to lead to other discussions,” he said. “And (I want them to) perhaps try to understand others who are not like themselves. Ultimately, I think that is going to create a stronger campus environment.”
ODI’s dialogue and discussion event, “Why Are We Still Debating Race-Based Sports Mascots,” is set to be held at the MLK Lounge in Hale Hall at 3 p.m.