Why Is Naming Sports Teams after Europeans Any Better?

Cleveland Indians players Franmil Reyes and center fielder Oscar Mercado hi-five in Progressive Field in Cleveland, July 2021. (David Richard/USA Today Sports via Reuters)

Our great-grandchildren are liable to recognize our chauvinism and wonder.

‘Cleveland Guardians” it will be. The news arrived on Friday, July 23, the day after the 225th anniversary of the city’s founding by a crew of Connecticut WASPs, who, having anchored on the southern shore of Lake Erie, gave the native people of the neighborhood not much say in the matter. A fan since childhood, I’d been dreading this moment since the front office confirmed, in December, that the Major League Baseball franchise in Cleveland would shed its longstanding nickname, Indians, after the 2021 season.

At this point, you’re liable to assume that I’ll spend the rest of this essay shaking my fist at left-wing social-justice warriors. It’s tempting. Be assured, I have words as well for culture warriors on the right who agreed to join the battle over the oldest sports tradition in that proud, misunderstood city on the banks of the Cuyahoga River. To those who began to wear the old colors and to flash the retired symbols not for love of the team but to own the libs, I say, “That’s when I knew the game was over.” Stay tuned for more on that.

First, a few observations about “the Indians.” It was elegant, tall and slender, the only one of the league’s 30 nicknames to begin with that trimmest of capital letters, I. The assonance with “Cleveland” touched you whether you were conscious of it or not: —and Ind—.

The reasons most often cited for objecting to “Indians” never added up, as you noticed if you calculated with a close eye and an open mind. Let’s run through the two main reasons, quickly.

To name a sports team after an ethnicity is to demean the ethnicity. Unless, apparently, we’re talking about northwestern Europeans — Vikings, Celtics, Yankees, Fighting Irish.

If you say that it isn’t racist to name a team after certain European ethnicities, I don’t disagree. If you then maintain that it is racist to name a team after a people whom European settler-colonizers displaced, please explain.

Look: On the ground, in the stands, at home in front of the screen, the anthropological associations evoked by such team names as “Vikings” and “Indians” are pretty thin. When we talk about the NBA franchise in Boston, we’re no more likely to think of the Indo-European peoples designated by the term “Celtic” than we are to think of Franciscan priests when talking about the MLB franchise in San Diego.

The culture war, of course, demands that we pretend otherwise, at least in some cases. Over the years, to no avail, I’ve asked friends and foes to make explicit the logic that leads them to aver that “Indians” is a racist team name but that “Yankees,” for example, is not. They’ve left me to do the work for them. Here goes:

Since our premise is that it’s demeaning to a people to attach their name to a sports team, to do so when the people in question are not at the bottom of a presumed status hierarchy has a leveling effect: The distance between them and those deemed to have suffered greater historical humiliation is reduced. The principle of equality is thereby served.

But follow the logic to the other end. Shouldn’t we want to have teams called “the White Anglo-Saxon Protestants,” to take the colonizers down a peg? How about “the Conquistadors”?

That would be a lot of weight to put on our premise. We don’t even try, since we intuit that the premise would collapse under the burden. We go only so far as to embrace teams named after certain subcategories of whites and to insist that any team named after a defeated and subjugated nonwhite people undertake a makeover, like immigrants from southern and eastern Europe who Anglicized their surnames after a few years in America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Let me tell you about my relatives named Franks.

“Remember when teams were named after American Indians?”

“Eww. How cringe. Go Vikings!”

I suspect that our great-grandchildren will recognize the chauvinism and wonder.

American Indians object — it’s their name, and we disrespect them by appropriating it. Most American Indians don’t object, to judge from most, though not all, polling on related questions. I’m not aware of any polling that’s been done directly on the name of the Cleveland Indians. In 2016, in a Washington Post poll, it was reported that 90 percent of American Indians did not object to the name of the Washington Redskins. The finding matched that of a poll conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center in 2004.

In 2020, however, researchers at Berkeley and Ann Arbor published findings sharply at odds with all that: Two-thirds of American Indians whose engagement with tribal culture was heavy considered the name “Redskins” offensive; even among those whose engagement with it was light, 40 percent were offended, four times the figure given by the polls from four and 16 years earlier. One of the authors of the 2020 poll argued that theirs was more rigorously constructed and therefore more reliable than that of the Post, but an interviewer for the Washingtonian touched on, in passing, a more piquant possibility: that the opinion of American Indians had shifted, in tandem with that of the general public, toward the position that many tribal leaders and activists had long advocated even when the bulk of their constituencies appeared not to have been following them on that issue.

The earliest public expression of American Indian opposition to the name and branding of the Cleveland MLB franchise came from Russell Means, an activist, in the early 1970s. For many years the cause was widely perceived as fringe — Means was passionate but unpolished. He could come off as a blowhard. Those who celebrate his posthumous victory (he died in 2012) may be inclined to assume that he prevailed because we the public finally caught up with a truth that he made us see. That truth, though, is not correct. Neither is it incorrect. It belongs to the category of interpretation, not fact. Means looked at the name “Indians” on the uniforms of the Cleveland baseball club and saw an ugliness. In the early days of his effort, most others did not. He insisted. He persisted. A critical mass slowly came around to his point of view.

You’ve seen Rubin’s vase, the ambiguous illustration that looks like a chalice and equally like two faces in profile opposite each other, nose to nose. Most of us at first see only one of the two depictions. We see the other when it’s pointed out to us. Then we’re able to switch rapidly, seeing the chalice one moment and, the next, the faces in profile.

Means and his peers taught us to see the name “Indians” in a new, unflattering light. Those of us who admit that we continue to see the name in the old, golden light as well and to appreciate its halo are scolded and mocked. We may lie and say we don’t notice what we notice. Or we may refuse to affirm or deny it, opting instead, as the Cleveland front office has done, to deflect the censorious attention of the racial-sensitivity squad of the morality police: “Hey, how ’bout them Guardians!”

*    *    *

In hindsight, we can see that the anti-Indians campaign gained momentum earlier than we realized at the time, when fans began to be cornered into making one of two possible unsatisfactory moves. The first was to let go — a rose by any other name, after all. The second possible move was to fight for the name, like a dog for a bone, succumbing to the distraction. We would take and keep our eyes off the prize, which is to win the World Series. Remember baseball?

To culture-warrior friends on the right who think I’ve surrendered by acknowledging that the side we’re against won and won quite some time ago, I offer this familiar wisdom from T. S. Eliot:

If we take the widest and wisest view of a Cause, there is no such thing as a Lost Cause because there is no such thing as a Gained Cause. We fight for lost causes because we know that our defeat and dismay may be the preface to our successors’ victory, though that victory itself will be temporary; we fight rather to keep something alive than in the expectation that anything will triumph.

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