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Redskins, Redmen, racism?

A history of troubling team names

Shakespeare’s Romeo was pretty convinced that “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” The Washington Redskins – Washington, D.C.’s team in the National Football League – would disagree with that sentiment. Clearly, Romeo didn’t have $1.6 billion invested in that rose.

The Redskins, which have been named as such since 1937, have a logo consisting of a profile of a stereotyped Native man, with reddish-brown skin and a feather sticking out of his head. The team’s name and associated logos have spent years as a topic of discussion about disparaging representation of Native peoples. The team is not alone in their heavily-debated position: teams like the Cleveland Indians (which features a similar logo of a grinning, bright red face with a feather in its hair) have also been targeted by campaigns to clean up their brand. The Indians have been the focus of protests  for years; an April 2012 article  in the Plain Dealer explains the twenty-year history of annual protests, organized by the Cleveland American Indian Movement (AIM) at Indians home games.

Professional teams have largely been resistant to change, for obvious (financial) reasons. Polls organized by groups like Sports Illustrated have attempted to gauge how Native communities feel about the name and logo, with results that often claim that few are offended – a claim that is disputed by decades of activism and clouded by questionable sample sizes and methodology.

Huge numbers of fans have complained that names like the Redskins’ are not racist, offensive, or problematic. The idea that language – no matter how ingrained that language is in our lexicon or brand names – is isolated from political implications is naïve and dangerous. One of the Redskins’ arguments in their own defence is that high school and college teams all over the country share the name, and that to change the team is to affect all of its derivatives. The argument falls flat in the face of a long list of amateur teams who have changed their names in the past, and the recent vote by students at a New York high school to change their team name from ‘Redskins’.

At McGill, the university’s sports teams are known as Redmen and Martlets (men’s teams are the Redmen, while women’s are the Martlets). In past years, students and members of the university community have expressed concern about potentially problematic origins of the name ‘Redmen’.

A media guide released by McGill Athletics addresses the origin of the name, quoting McGill historian Stanley Frost. “A look into the history of the nickname ‘Redmen’ reveals that it was first used in 1927 and was originally written as two words (i.e. ‘Red Men’), in reference to the red school colours and red jerseys worn by McGill teams,” the guide reads. It goes on to explain that Frost draws the connection between the nickname ‘Red Men’ being used for ancient Celts due to their hair colour, and the Scottish heritage of McGill founder James McGill. (A similar explanation was used by the University of Massachusetts, which argued that the origin of its teams’ name ‘Redmen’ was jersey colour. In 1972, UMass changed its teams’ name to the Minutemen.)

Earl Zukerman, communications officer for Athletics & Recreation, explained the history of McGill team names. He attributed the start of the nickname ‘Red Men’ to media outlets in the 1920s. “Papers didn’t have a lot of room in their headlines, so they came up with nicknames,” Zukerman said in an interview with The Daily. He said that he was unsure when McGill officially adopted the name.

A quick search will turn up the Montreal Gazette’s reports on the ‘McGill Indians’ in the 1950s. Zukerman said that the media attached the name to junior varsity teams, back when McGill had senior varsity, junior varsity, and intermediate teams. Around 1970, in a funding crisis, McGill “stopped all funding for athletics,” Zukerman explained. When that happened, junior varsity teams were cut, effectively ending the use of the name.

It’s a somewhat convoluted history, complicated further by logos that Athletics has tried to separate from the names. A text by Zukerman, originally posted on a former incarnation of the McGill Athletics website, explains that, “of the 48 varsity sports teams at McGill, only football and hockey have for a brief period of time, used an aboriginal symbol as part of their playing uniform.” The text explains that a 1992 inquiry by the McGill Athletics Board in 1992 decided to remove the logo that had been in place since 1982 – which is described just as “an aboriginal logo” – because it had “nothing to do with the origins of the team name.” The 1992 decision by McGill was a positive step toward recognizing the impact of culturally insensitive team names which may someday extend to the professional ranks; however, the refusal by McGill to address the problems with the name ‘Red Men’ – regardless of what they claim its origins to be – shows that we still have a long way to go.