Readers keep the popular thread going:
I, too, find several currently-used mascots to be unnecessary and out-of-touch, and I would not presume to suggest that offense taken at certain mascots should be minimized, but on balance, surely intent and context do matter. They are, after all, sports mascots; they are supposed to be cartoonish caricatures of the characters/groups they represent. That doesn’t necessarily render them or the selection of the related team names offensive enough to send to the trash bin.
For example, the mascot at my high school was a Viking – a cartoonish figure with a giant horned helmet wielding a cartoonish sword and a giant, cartoonish smile. Surely the fact that this mascot and related logo were intended solely as cheerleader-type figures, while the name itself was chosen to symbolize those things one would presumably admire about our visions of the Vikings – strength, bravery, and exploration – weighs in their favor despite not being an accurate visual representation of actual Northern Europeans.
At Notre Dame, my alma mater, the mascot is a fighting leprechaun, for Christ’s sake – surely about as much of a stereotype of a drunken Irishman as one could imagine – yet it is a beloved image of the university’s teams. Why? Because context and intent matter. It’s a sports mascot, not designed to mock those of Irish heritage but to serve as a reminder, even in cartoonish form, of their fighting spirit.
There are plenty of examples of ethnicities in team names throughout history.
The Negro League had teams like the Birmingham Black Barons, the New York Cubans and the Chicago Brown Bombers. These weren’t chosen to insult their fans but to honor them. I would dare say that if you were to visit a local softball or soccer league, self-chosen team names there would represent the same ethnic, professional, or even sexual orientation of the players. A team name is a mark of pride, not a walking insult. That’s why we don’t see people of Irish descent picketing Boston Celtics games or Northeasterners who don’t pronounce r’s at the end of sentences protesting the Yankees. The best historic nicknames reflected the ethnic, their working-class (Packers, Steelers, Brewers, Aggies, Cornhuskers) or economic class (Brooklyn Bums/Dodgers).
This slippery slope is two-sided. If Braves and Indians offend, what about nicknames that refer to European attempts to subjugate native tribes, such as Rangers, Padres, Pioneers or Oklahoma’s “Sooners” and “89ers” which refer to that state’s huge land grab?
(Photo: The Notre Dame Fighting mascot looks on during the Big East Quarterfinal College Basketball Championship game against the Pittsburgh Panthers on March 11, 2010 at Madison Square Garden. By Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)