Politics & Policy

Beating the Drums

The fight over Indian team names heats up.

This Friday, the U.S. Commission for Civil Rights will return to the pressing national crisis of sports teams using Indian names and mascots. The panel nearly adopted a formal statement last month condemning Florida State University, to take one example, for calling its teams the Seminoles. This is “offensive, harmful, [and] dehumanizing,” says the draft statement, written by commissioner Elsie Meeks. It creates “a racially hostile environment,” perpetuates “harmful stereotypes,” and encourages “biases and prejudices.” The statement doesn’t mention that many Indian tribes — notably the Seminoles in Florida — actually support the practice, and maintain healthy relationships with colleges, universities, and high schools. But it does urge the Department of Justice to throw its lawyers at these schools, on the grounds that they somehow violate the 1964 Civil Rights Act and other anti-discrimination laws.

The commissioners were poised to approve the statement at their last meeting, on March 9. “I think it should be released along with spring training and the opening of the baseball season,” said commissioner Victoria Wilson. “When is that?” asked chairwoman Mary Frances Berry. “I don’t know, but sometime in the spring. I don’t know,” replied Wilson. Nobody else on the eight-member commission seemed to know either. Apparently they were too busy inventing bizarre interpretations of civil-rights statutes to read the sports pages.

They would have forged ahead anyway, but for the efforts of commissioner Abigail Thernstrom. She injected a much-needed dose of common sense into the discussion by saying that somebody should come up with a shred of actual proof that a significant number of ordinary American Indians — as opposed to a few groups that claim to speak on their behalf — really objected. The statement asserts that team names like the University of North Dakota’s Fighting Sioux (who lost college hockey’s championship game last weekend) “are disrespectful and offensive to American Indians.” It is true that some Indians feel this way. It is also true that some Indians consider the association an honor, as well as an opportunity to forge links with important educational institutions.

Thernstrom offered to write an alternative statement, which she has now done. It’s a huge improvement. It acknowledges, for instance, that the image of Indians “in a sports context is one of courage, bravery, and discipline.” It doesn’t speak grandly of Justice Department lawsuits: “The Commission is not asking that the Braves rename the team.” But it does recognize authentic sensibilities: “We are asking that schools, teams, and other organizations voluntarily drop names that Native Americans themselves (as indicated by polling data or clearly expressed local sentiment) find offensive.”

There’s no guarantee the Thernstrom proposal will win a majority when the commission meets again on Friday morning. Yet it is a fine effort that balances strongly held views on both sides of the controversy, and it deserves to pass.

For more on this simmering dispute, see our coverage from last month.


The Latest