With controversial nicknames, context is key

With controversial nicknames, context is key
February 14, 2013, 8:45 am
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Redskins owner Daniel Snyder (left), who has always been a black hole for local abuse, is the one orchestrating the team’s refusal to consider a name change. (AP)

The Washington Redskins Offensive Nickname story is one of those grand old perennials that crops up now and again because, well, it just does. An issue ignored is always an issue deferred.

This is also true for the Cleveland Indians and Chief Wahoo, and more recently the Atlanta Braves and the Screaming Indian logo. Every now and then someone is reminded, as the Braves learned when they wanted to put the Screaming Indian on their spring training caps, that these are offensive references to many Native Americans and other citizens.

But it doesn’t seem to be so for the Chicago Blackhawks or Golden State Warriors, the other two Indian-based nicknames in North American professional sports, which leads to a question: Why some and not the others?

And our wholly unscientific theory is that it depends not solely on the nickname alone but also how stridently it is defended, and by whom.

The Redskins are undergoing a fresh paroxysm of outrage in part because of their singularly dull-witted approach to the public relations aspects. In their current fight with locals over the nickname, they are invoking high school teams that retain the nickname “Redskins,” which is a ridiculous stance to take on nearly any level.

But it is also the fact that owner Daniel Snyder, who has always been a black hole for local abuse, is the one orchestrating the team’s refusal to consider a name change. He doesn’t want to be bullied into changing a name that has existed for 80 years, he doesn’t want to lose the money it would cost to rebrand his team, and there are just enough traditionalists (you may substitute your own collective noun if you see fit) who don’t want the name changed because they don’t want the name changed.

That is the alternate argument, of course: “Why are you offended? I’m not.” And yes, it is just that silly in print as it is in your head.

There have also been occasional attempts to get the Indians to change their name, or at least drop Chief Wahoo as the principal logo. And public outcry backed the Braves off their Screaming Indian hat plan, although they retain the tomahawk as the underlining to either “Braves” or “Atlanta.” And who can forget the Tomahawk Chop, which was lifted from Florida State?

There is, however, no such outcry when it comes to the Blackhawks, whose principal Indian head logo has been essentially the same since 1964. The logo is so admired within hockey circles that a number of minor league, junior and youth teams have taken it as their own, and to the extent that there is any objection at all, it is so muted as to be negligible.

And the Warriors, operating as they have in the more politically sensitive Bay Area, haven’t been accused of anything Indian-shame related ever.

Then again, they dropped the Indian headdress logo in 1969 and replaced it with the brilliantly conceived and essentially timeless Local Conceit/”THE CITY” logo, with the bridge in the front and the cable car in the back. In fact, at this point, there is almost nobody who thinks of the Warriors as an Indian-based nickname at all – maybe because the franchise has been rebranded as an amorphous group of humans who are mostly bad at defense.

In short, like everything else in America, context has a lot to do with it. It isn’t just the offense, it’s who is doing the offending, and how they are doing it. The North Dakota Fighting Sioux aren’t the Fighting Sioux any more because their chief donor, who wouldn’t build a new hockey arena unless the name was retained, died, and because the NCAA threatened to refuse to hold any championships there until the name was changed, and because three elections were held to change, retain and then change the name again.

Got that? Oxen were being gored left and right, and the outrage swelled or ebbed based on the identity of the perforated ox. Oh, and at one point, the school was given the right to retain the name if both local Sioux tribes agreed, and one did not. In other words, unanimity is hard to come by on this issue.

As for the Redskins issue, well, it is about a lot of things, not just offense to a minority. It certainly can’t be because Washington is just too traditional a town; the Wizards used to be the Bullets until former owner Abe Pollin noticed that a lot of people were getting shot in Washington and Baltimore in 1996 and changed it on his own.

So this is really about want-to rather than anything else. Snyder doesn’t want to, and Snyder is unpopular, so the Redskin nickname remains a hot button long after the argument about how much offense is being caused should have been settled.

And the Warriors? Maybe they can be the shining example of how change can be affected by replacing one local conceit with another. What if the Redskins became the Lobbyists, with a logo of a stylized hand in someone else’s trouser pocket.

After all, it’s always a good branding idea to go with what you know.

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