The first football game I ever attended in Iowa pitted the Dutch against the Norse. Who knew such strong ethnic sentiments still persisted? Team names like Highlanders, Celtics, and Vikings express similar ethnic heritages.

Last month, after years of pressure, Washington’s NFL team finally dropped the name Redskins. Likewise in the Canadian Football League, Edmonton’s franchise announced they would stop being known as the Eskimos. Both team names came under considerable criticism as demeaning caricatures and for perpetuating racist images. Last week, Rebecca Koerselman also commented on the change here on The Twelve.

Now the Indians, Braves, Chiefs, and Blackhawks are facing similar scrutiny. The Indians dumped their mascot “Chief Wahoo” a couple years ago as a conciliatory gesture. Then, there are a few teams like the Florida State University Seminoles that have reached out to the Seminole nation to partner with them in ways that try to be beneficial and honoring. You can always find a handful of Native Americans who aren’t opposed to such names and images, but they aren’t in the mainstream.

With Redskins and Eskimos gone, both teams have gone with generic, temporary place-holding names — Washington/Edmonton Football Team. There are all sorts of proposals floating around for new names. PETA made the droll suggestion that Washington keep their name but change their logo to a small potato. I am impressed by the creative suggestion that the Atlanta Braves keep their name but replace Native American imagery with a connection to first-responders.

Do teams have the right to be called whatever they wish? Of course. This isn’t about free speech. Likewise, I’m a fan. I understand lore and tradition and the emotional connection that develops with your team. I’m almost over my Seattle Pilots leaving for Milwaukee 50 years ago. Please don’t even bring up the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Native names may seem like an expression of admiration. In reality, they were probably more informed by crass stereotyping — wild, savage, dangerous. We wouldn’t accept names like the Darkies, Cotton-Pickers, or Yellow Peril. If the town across the river called themselves the Clodhoppers and made their mascot a crude and clumsy Dutchman, we in Pella would take umbrage.

What seems overlooked in most of these conversations are power, privilege, and social capital. Dutch people chose to name their own teams the Dutch. Names like Eskimos and Indians weren’t selected by Native Americans or for teams composed of Native Americans.

As Christians, shouldn’t we seek to listen to people, to hear grievances, and honor simple requests — especially of the marginalized? You don’t have to be marginalized to know the humiliation of having your pain dismissed as trivial, unintended or preposterous. Simply that Native Americans find these names derogatory seems like enough reason for the teams to change — or at least for Christians to support the changes.

Beyond Sports

A lot depends on who is saying and using words. That is true for these team name controversies, but also in broader and more significant ways. I can’t use the N-word. Maybe a brash African-American comedian can. As a comfortable, top-of-the-heap sort of person, I am probably not as able to read and interpret the book of Revelation as those who are crushed and hopeless.

Similar thoughts — about power equations, about letting people have their own monikers, and who is saying words — came to mind when I heard someone refer to “the LGBT alphabet soup and whatever other initials they’ve tacked on this week.” Of course, LGBT refers to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender. Admittedly when Q (“queer” or sometimes “questioning.”) and A (asexual or ally?) and I (intersex, persons whose anatomy doesn’t fit typical male/female categories) are added, LGBTQIA becomes a bit unwieldy. But not any more than Mathonnet-VanderWell, or lots of other alphabet soups in church and civic life.

I still feel anxious when I’m around a person whose preferred pronouns are they/them/theirs. I need to be a little extra vigilant. But I can make that effort. Soon it will be second-nature.

If this is how people wish to be addressed, I’ll try to honor it rather than complain about it. Is the complaining really about making your mouth work too hard, or is it expressing a deeper antipathy?

Many years ago I was a delegate to the General Synod of the Reformed Church in America. A proposal came for the “Black Council” to be renamed the “African-American Council.” Church leaders, who just one day earlier had enthusiastically endorsed a vision for a diverse and multiracial church, now stood in line at the microphones bristling with patronizing, petty, and scornful questions. “I remember when you were the Negro Council. Then Black. Now African-American. When will it end?” “How much is this going to cost?” “Are all constituents actually of African descent?” “Why not ‘Afro-American?’”

At last, a wise, old, African-American Elder had his turn at the microphone. With only gentleness and no guile, he spoke. “I hear your questions and I don’t have answers for all of them. Perhaps we will be back in a decade or two asking for a different name. We are people who have been troubled and hard-pressed, who are still not entirely sure how to self-identify. We’re wrestling with these questions. I ask for your patience and I ask that you honor this simple request to let us name ourselves.”

An earlier, somewhat similar version of this essay appeared on The Twelve on October 22, 2013.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell and his wife, Sophie, are the pastors at the Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa. Steve has served on numerous Reformed Church commissions and task forces, and also edited the journal Perspectives for many years. Before coming to Iowa, he lived and served as a pastor in upstate New York. Sophie and he have two adult children. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College in theological ethics.

6 Comments

  • Harvey Stob says:

    Why do so many Christian high schools go by the name “The Crusaders?”

    • Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell says:

      Good question, Harvey! Based only on casual observation, it seems like some schools have dumped Crusaders. Not exactly Christians’ finest hour. Probably not a way to build trust with Muslims. I believe “Campus Crusade” became “Cru” a few years back. It’s a situation a bit like another team name under scrutiny — the Texas Rangers. Apparently the law enforcement Texas Rangers were known for bigotry and brutality. And then, does that spill over to the the New York Rangers…?

  • Marty Wondaal says:

    Steve,

    Interesting post. As with so many culture war and identity politics issues, it seems to me that the battle over insensitive or racist team names is actually a proxy war waged between two groups of mostly white people.

    But that doesn’t mean we can’t have some fun…

    This topic reminds me of some novel team names that I’ve always thought should be used. Most have economic or religious backgrounds:

    Economic:
    Capitalists
    Industrialists
    Robber Barons
    Free Marketeers
    Entrepreneurs
    …these people or groups all greatly contributed to human flourishing.

    Religious/Cultural:
    Reformers
    Confessors
    Huguenots
    Kulaks
    ….these names are appropriate for teams who would rather play the game the right way than win.

    My high school team name was Vikings. I don’t know why it was picked and why it was never changed. Vikings were not Christian, and they have kind of a “rape and pillage” reputation. Our basketball program, on the other hand, had a sterling reputation of mediocrity, and we were surrounded by much larger public high schools where basketball was the raison d’etre.

    We would play against these schools in a summer league at a local community college. Most of our upperclassmen and even coaches found convenient reasons not to make it to the games. The gym was sweltering, the crowd was extremely vocal, and the score was decisively never in our favor. It may have been fitting to change our name to the Martyrs.

    Marty Wondaal (he, his)

  • Marty Wondaal says:

    Oh, and one more:

    The Elect

    • Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell says:

      Or what about the Remonstrants? Could be apocryphal, but after Stanford dropped “Indians” (in the 1970s somewhere), I believe students voted to become the Robber Barons. I think Trees was also favored by students until they actually became the Cardinal.
      As for the whole issue being a proxy war in the larger culture wars, maybe you’re correct. I don’t see why it has to be. Why make this a flash point? As I said above, I understand memories and tradition associated with sports, but it seems like a name change could be a simple gesture of good will rather than “you’ll have to pry it out of my cold, dead fingers.” Especially as Christians, if someone says “you’re hurting me” I think we would want to stop it, or, “this is how I would like to be addressed,” we’d oblige.

  • Marty Wondaal says:

    Why make this a flash point? Because people on the left know that there will always be other people, not always as political as they are, who have some weird affinity to sports teams (I’d be perfectly fine with the dissolution of professional sports – “Micky Mantle doesn’t care about you”) that they follow and will take great offense when anyone tries to take their beloved team name away. The agitators on the left then can beat their opponents in the right with virtue cudgels into perpetuity. And the mob looks on with glee…

    Thanks be to God that we live in such a time when team names, redlining, and micro aggressions are flash points in our wars of hatred against each other. It could be a lot worse.

    Hey, is anyone going to write something about Biden, Harris, or the DNC Convention?

Leave a Reply