Braves, Indians, Utes, Chiefs—these team nicknames may seem harmless at first glance. Yet, all of these team names, and the symbols used to represent them, are brimming with racist connotations against Native Americans. In August 2005, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) created standards which prohibit colleges and universities from featuring “hostile and abusive” team names at the NCAA championships (Williams, 2005). This means that if a team wishes to be eligible for an end-of-the-season championship tournament, it may not display any offensive images. Many universities were affected by this ruling because of their selection of mascots that depicts a Native American. By late August, Florida State University (FSU) appealed the NCAA’s ruling and was granted permission for the continued use of the Seminoles nickname and the imagery associated with it (Wieberg, 2005). FSU, along with all other sports programs (high school, collegiate, professional) must realize the cultural implications that accompany the use of Native America imagery to represent their team.
FSU traditions—fans chanting and swinging their arms in a chopping motion; a student depicting Chief Osceola, the former leader of the Seminole tribe; the athletes or cheerleaders wearing uniforms and costumes that imitate the Seminole tribe—romanticize, while at the same time typecast Native American images. Let us assume for the moment that the FSU athletic program respects and honors the Seminole tribe of Florida. Interestingly, the use of the name Seminole, and FSU’s representation of that tribe, has never been approved by any of the Seminole tribes in Oklahoma (King & Springwood, 2001, p. 146). In addition, other Native American tribes are likely to be offended and appalled by the presentation of such images. FSU’s depiction provides a narrow view of Native American life and customs. Before every FSU football game a student ostentatiously rides out on a horse in full face paint, wearing a headdress and traditional Native American attire. An uninformed American or a naïve child sees this mascot and assumes that all Native Americans appear and behave like this image of Osceola.
The most avid sports fans, be they Seminole fans or not, seldom are familiar with the history of the Seminole tribe, hence racism ensues because they do not comprehend the full picture. As Davis (2005) noted, “schools cannot control how others, such as the media and other schools/teams, use their mascot” (p. 125). Ignorance towards FSU and its history has been observed in many disturbing instances. As the recent basketball game between our Maryland Terps and FSU’s Seminoles neared an end, the Tomahawk Chop and its accompanying War Chant could be heard and seen by groups in the student section. How many non-FSU fans who display the Tomahawk Chop realize what they are doing? To give another example, in 1999, the Knoxville Sentinel printed a cartoon prior to the Fiesta Bowl between the University of Tennessee and FSU. The cartoon included Smokey (Tennessee’s mascot) and a “buffoonish caricature of a generic Indian.” This cartoon lampooned “the genocide, lies, and destruction associated with the conquest of North America” (King & Springwood, 2001, p. 129). These examples involving FSU are forms of rude, inconsiderate, and ignorant racism.
It may seem obvious for FSU and other teams simply to change their mascot and team branding, but it’s much more complicated than that. The reason that FSU and other schools are opposed, and sometimes unwilling, to change their team name is because of the sense of pride that athletes, students, and alumni have for their team. FSU has a variety of symbols, customs, and rituals that have been taken from the Seminole tribe and used in the sporting tradition. The fans have come to know and love the logo, fight song, and pre-game ceremonies, just to name a few. To change this would destroy the “imagined community” that has been created over the years by fans, the athletic programs and the school (Schultz, 2008). Fans feel bonded by these offensive symbols and to take them away, or even worse, to change the team name would ruin their sense of unity.
An extreme example of people not understanding history relates to FSU head football coach Bobby Bowden’s addition to his signature—“Scalp ‘Em” (King & Springwood, 2001, p. 131). Bowden, or any American for that matter, has no reason to use this phrase. Many people do not appreciate that racism goes beyond the realm of black and white; it extends to many ethnicities. Years after settlers came to colonize, Americans still find it acceptable to mock, stereotype, and abuse the Native Americans’ symbols, cultures, heritage, etc. (Schultz, 2008). So I challenge you to be more thoughtful next time you watch a team with a Native American mascot. Be hesitant to do the Tomahawk Chop in a mocking manner. Be wary of painting your face with war paint. Do not simply accept everything at face value. Next time you’re watching an exciting game featuring the Seminoles, Cleveland Indians, Washington Redskins, or the Chicago Blackhawks (I could keep going), think about the history and implications involved in mocking these cultures.
Davis, L. R. (2005). The Problems with Native American Mascots. In D. S. Eitzen (Ed.), Sport in Contemporary Society: An Anthology. (pp. 121–128). Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers.
King, C. R., & Springwood, C. F. (2001). The Best Offense… In C. R. King and C. F. Springwood (Eds.), Team Spirits: The Native American Mascots Controversy. (pp. 129–156). Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska.
Schultz, J. (2008). Module II: Sport in the “New World.” Week 2. University of Maryland, College Park. Speaker.
Wieberg, S. (2005, August 23). NCAA Allowing Florida State to use its Seminole Mascot. USA Today. Retrieved February 18, 2008, from http://www.usatoday.com/
Williams, B. (2005, August 5). NCAA Executive Committee Issues Guidelines for Use of Native American Mascots at Championship Events. Retrieved February 18, 2008, from http://www.ncaa.org/
Associated Press. (2007, February 17). Illinois’ Chief Illiniwek Performs Last Dance. ESPN. Retrieved February 18, 2008, from http://www.espn.com/
Fisher, D. M. (2001). Chief Bill Orange and the Saltime Warrior. In C. R. King and C. F. Springwood (Eds.), Team Spirits: The Native American Mascots Controversy. (pp. 129– 156). Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska.
Mohr, J. (2005, August 18). Lame Name Game. Sports Illustrated. Retrieved February 18, 2008, from http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com