New Castle News

December 30, 2013

Mitchel Olszak: Names of sports teams may be undergoing an evolution

Mitchel Olszak
New Castle News

NEW CASTLE — If you’re a sports fan of any degree, you’re probably aware of an ongoing controversy in America’s culture wars.

The names of some sports teams are under attack because they are perceived as racist. Generally, these involve names that are linked to certain stereotypical images of Native Americans.

Perhaps the most famous of these is the dispute involving the name of the Washington Redskins, the pro football team in the nation’s capital. But other names, such as Braves, Indians or other designations are being challenged in assorted circles.

Yet the names also have their defenders. Some of this stems from tradition; fans of certain teams don’t want to see name changes, and they dispute that references to Native Americans are intended to be insulting.

After all, sports teams and the entities that oversee them generally don’t select names that are intended to belittle. Instead, they usually pick team names designed to represent power or intimidation.

Locally, this can be seen in the names of school team names. In New Castle, we have the Red Hurricane, a reference to the school color combined with the image of an unstoppable storm blowing through the opposition.

Then you have assorted animal references, such as the Wildcats at Shenango, Wolverines in Ellwood City or Greyhounds of Wilmington. Typically, the animal names of sports teams imply strength, menace or speed (if one overlooks the Penguins of Youngstown State or Pittsburgh).

Then there are the human references in team names, such as the Laurel Spartans, Neshannock Lancers or Mohawk Warriors. Here, things could get a bit dicey. Warrior may be a generic term, but it’s a Native American reference. The Spartans derive from stories of an aggressive city-state in ancient Greece. But are modern Greeks flattered or insulted by the reference?

Elsewhere in Pennsylvania, a dispute over a team name has erupted in the Neshaminy school system near Philadelphia. The editors of the student newspaper at Neshaminy High School have decided they will not make direct references to the school’s team name, the Redskins, because they view it as degrading to Native Americans.

School officials ordered the newspaper not to do this, which led the students to lawyer up. Their law firm has threatened legal action if the school attempts to punish the student editors in any way.

The smart thing here would be for school officials to let this matter play itself out. The use or non-use of a team name does not endanger students, and the decision by the editors is part of an ongoing national debate.

Sometimes, doing nothing is the common-sense move. Unfortunately, it’s an option that’s often ignored.