Patents, Sports, and First Nations


Back in 2007, The University Illinois Board of Trustees made the controversial decision to retire their school’s mascot Chief Illiniwek,  This marked the end of a thirty-some year debate, arguing the merits of university-athletic tradition and perpetuating racial intolerance.  At the time, I was quite upset at the verdict by the University.  I love sports, especially the rituals, traditions, and symbols of University athletics in the United States.  As a student at Brigham Young University, I loved our University Mascot Cosmo the Cougar, singing the University fight song, and hearing the blasts of the George Q Cannon at football games.  I thought it was unfair that the University of Illinois had their tradition ripped from them by a bunch of bureaucrats that “probably don’t watch sports” and didn’t understand what the mascot meant to the students.

A few days ago, the Washington Redskins National Football League team had their trademark cancelled by the US Patent and Trademark Office because it was “disparaging to Native Americans”.  Since the outbreak of this story and debate, it has caused me to take account of and reflect upon my views and opinions on this matter.  Since I am a little older, a diehard sports fan, and a public historian, I feel the need to weigh in on this debate.

1. To continue doing something just because “that’s the way we’ve always done it” is not a valid reason to continue

On occasion we have to take stock of how we are doing certain things, whether it is running a business, raising and educating children, making decisions, etc.  Just because the Redskins have been the Redskins  since 1932, doesn’t mean they should continue that tradition.  The term “redskin” is offensive and derogatory to First Nations as it refers to how First Nations’ bloody scalps were sold for profit. It needs to leave our vocabulary since it perpetuates the racial oppression of the past.  A friend of mine brought to my attention how newspapers and  have used the term “scalped” as an idiom for defeating an opponent, it’s a shame that even up to the year 2000, newspapers were still using the term “scalped” in a sports context.

2.  Using a racial demographic as a sports nickname is dehumanizing

Think of what pro and college sports teams use as mascots: bears, lions, tigers, sharks, etc.  These are viscious animals meant to instill fear, and intimidate opponents.  The  Washington Redskins, Chicago Blackhawks, Cleveland Indians, and Atlanta Braves dehumanize and de-civilize First Nations by using their names in this context.  And if that’s not bad enough, these sporting organizations profit off these monikers through licensing and merchandise sales.  Now, I do realize that not all sports teams have intimidating nicknames like the Toronto Maple LeafsUtah Jazz, and Miami Dolphins, even still, it’s an objectification of the people that they misrepresent.

3.  What about the Notre Dame Fighting Irish?

This was one point that I struggled with for quite some time and delayed the publishing of this post.  I have come to the conclusion that the major difference between the Fighting Irish and these First Nations nicknames is that historically a good proportion of the athletes competing on Notre Dame were actually of Irish heritage.  Thus, it was actually an accurate representation of the team for a long time.  Of course, I hesitate to say it’s an accurate representation now with college recruiters going beyond the bounds of their states to seek out the best athletes for their teams, but no one’s complaining about the misrepresentation of the nickname of the University of Notre Dame at this time.  The following from the Notre Dame athletics website explains the name’s  origin:

The most generally accepted explanation is that the press coined the nickname as a characterization of Notre Dame athletic teams, their never-say-die fighting spirit and the Irish qualities of grit, determination and tenacity. The term likely began as an abusive expression tauntingly directed toward the athletes from the small, private, Catholic institution. Notre Dame alumnus Francis Wallace popularized it in his New York Daily News columns in the 1920s.

4. The bottom line

In reality, how many First Nations were actually playing under these offensive monikers when they were first established?  Few, if any.  How many First Nations are now complaining about these nicknames? A lot.  There are people that are being hurt and marginalized for the sake of tradition and profits, and it is not right.

What is baffling is that in sports, the nickname does not make the tradition and legacy of a team.  There are a lot of professional sports teams that have horrible nicknames with incredible legacies (see Los Angeles Lakers, Kentucky Wildcats, Oakland Athletics, New York Knickerbockers, Pittsburgh Steelers, Green Bay Packers, I could go on).  MVP awards, wins, and championships make teams and create storied legacies, not nicknames.  Therefore, if the Redskins were to change their nickname and start to win games and championships, no one would be saying that their legacy is tarnished because they’re “not the Redskins anymore”, instead they will be celebrating the “new and improved Washington (insert new name here).”

Furthermore, the Redskins have only made the playoffs three times in the last fifteen years.  Maybe they need a name and uniform to help revitalize this franchise, anyway.  They haven’t been competitive since I controlled them in Madden ’93 on Sega Genesis.  So Dan Snyder, do yourself, your fans, and the community a favour: change the name.