Silence and Spectacle: How the Sports Media Sanctions Racist Mascots

By Guest Contributors C. Richard King and David J. Leonard

Image by Keith Allison via Flickr Creative Commons.

One would hope sport media outlets might take their civic duty to foster critical thinking, public engagement, and informed debated seriously. Their approach to the representations in Native Americans in sport suggest otherwise. Under the veil of fairness and balance, they opt to speak for, to be silent and to silence as preferred pathways.

When ESPN columnist Rick Reilly offered a defense of Native American mascots because the American Indians he knew did not have a problem with them. Flouting his whiteness and playing his privilege with little regard, he spoke for Native Americas. His word – his whiteness, his platform – made their words meaningful. His editors neither batted an eye nor cleared a space for Native Americans to express themselves.

In fact, Reilly misrepresented his key source, his father-in-law, who wrote a lengthy retort in Indian Country Today that noted he found the name of Washington D.C.’s National Football League team to be objectionable. Reilly still stood by his piece and neither he nor his publisher have offered a correction or an apology.

Fans of Washington, D.C.’s NFL team. Image by Keith Allison via Flickr Creative Commons.

Similarly, Daniel Snyder, the owner of the franchise, continually invokes American Indians to support the team name, imagery and traditions, as in his recent sentimental letter to the public, from one-time coach Lone Star Dietz (who claimed to be but was indeed not indigenous) as the inspiration of the honorific name to the Red Cloud School (a reservation school which does not support it).

Not surprisingly, someone who loves and profits from the invented Indian figure he owns does not have a problem with offering up insincere fictions in his defense. He doesn’t invoke the history of colonization and genocide,  or the specific racial history of his own franchise. Predictably, someone who reaps the daily benefit of white supremacy sees little problem with the football team located in the nation’s capital having for its mascot a racist slur seeped in white supremacist colonial history.

Worse perhaps, the media have largely given Snyder a pass, staying silent, not fact checking, not challenging his misinformation beyond the publication of a few opinion pieces.  It has not provided a space for indigenous communities or any number of scholars who have documented the harm resulting from mascots – yes, it’s bigger than being offensive.

Moreover, while individual columnists have condemned the team name, the Washington Post continues to refer to the team by its official racial slur and has not taken an editorial stand not to use it in the paper. And perhaps ironically, The Kansas City Star has a policy against using the R-word, yet it has not denounced Native American mascots nor has it sought to curtail its financial gains resulting from its reporting on the hometown team, the Kansas City Chiefs.

In the DC media market, then, it is not shocking to learn that two radio stations will not run ads by an organization critical of the team name. Silencing dissent is, of course, in their best interest. To do otherwise threatens to alienate the team and the NFL more generally and their audience. Importantly, the stations have glossed this as an effort to promote balanced discourse, guided by principles of fairness meant to protect their audience and open discussion of the issue. Much like Reilly and Snyder, who silence indigenous people by speaking for them, the radio stations silence them, albeit in a more overt and direct fashion, by refusing to let the public hear their perspectives.

Of course, not everyone in the sport media has been silent. As noted above, sport columnists at The Washington Post have taken a stand against the continued use of the racist team name in DC, and so too have other sport journalists like Peter KingSports Illustrated’s leading NFL correspondent. The Nation‘s Dave Zirin has written consistently on this subject, describing it as a “racial slur” tied to the history of colonialization and genocide. We do not wish to make light of these interventions. They have proven profoundly important for the broadening of public debate and deepening of public understanding. Thousands of people, who might not otherwise, have had to engage the issue, and these engagement, even when defensive, have fostered reflection, coverage, and action.

As important as they have been, however, it was a commentary on Sunday Night Football by Bob Costas that seems to have most captured national attention. In a brief spot, during halftime of the Dallas-DC game, Costas described the latter’s team name as an insult. This condemnation was widely applauded for its eloquence and frankness. Like much of what Costas writes, it was smart and persuasive, leading viewers to a simple conclusion R-word is a harmful slur that should end.

“When considered that way, ‘***skins’ can’t possibly honor a heritage, or noble character trait, nor can it possibly be considered a neutral term. It’s an insult, a slur, no matter how benign the present-day intent,” noted Costas. “It is fair to say that for a long time now, and certainly in 2013, no offense has been intended. But, if you take a step back, isn’t it clear to see how offense ‘might’ legitimately be taken?”

To reach this endpoint, Costas made a move to appear like a reasonable every man offering a reasoned position: he contrasted the ***skins with other American Indian mascots, which he opined were intended to be respectful. In other words, some racist imagery and traditions are good, but this one is bad, undeniably racist.

In the process, he displayed a pronounced historical illiteracy and ignorance about the social and psychological effects of racist words and symbols, and the privilege of well-meaning white guy (arguing, in effect, let’s get rid of this overt racism that is sullying a good game and a great society). This containment looks progressive, relishes the illusion of progress that blinds it to structure and context. It blunts critique and cripples justice, leaving the status quo largely unchallenged and unchanged in the smallest of ways.

In a sense the silence/silencing sport media complex, which at its most radical can propose half-measures, encourages and endorses the more politicized and reactionary imaginings emerging online, especially since President Obama proposed his own half-measure (“I’d think about changing it”). Frontpage Magazine, for instance, suggested the team change its name to the Washington Welfares and imagined a logo with Obama’s profile in the center, ringed by a bong, peace button, and food stamps.

While one might rightly speculate that once Obama weighed in on the issue, the far right would have a field day, we suggest that so long as the sport media hides behind a fair and balanced approach (that treats this as an ahistorical debate between two equal sides), refuses to report and reiterate “the facts” (such as that racist mascots have empirical effects or that the team is not named after an American Indian), actively silences indigenous voices and dissenting perspectives, and reduces the issues to offensive (not historical inequities and structural violence), it sanctions racism, encouraging it flourish it mainstream and extreme formulations (the DC NFL franchise and the reactionary critiques of Obama respectively). Their silence is complicity. Yet, as long ESPN – the premiere sports media conglomerate –refuses to push the conversation all while providing legitimacy for mascots and their supporters, it will remain on the wrong side of history.

Enter Lee Corso, ESPN’s resident college football expert and co-host of its flagship preview show, College Gameday. Each Saturday millions of fans tune in to watch Corso, who ends each and every show by announcing his pick for the game that is taking place at that weekend’s location. He does so by donning the headgear of the team’s mascot. This past weekend, he predicted Florida State University’s Seminoles would beat the Clemson Tigers. Not satisfied to simply wear the Seminole headgear, he instead dressed in full costume, including war paint, spear, and the other trappings of racist stereotypes.

It was minstrelsy at its worst; an instance to mock and recycle longstanding fantasies of the savage Indian. It wasn’t just comedian Bill Murray playfully knocking Corso to the ground and “beating” him as he tried to throw the Seminole spear into the Clemson logo. The sight of a white man “playing Indian” being pummeled by another white male was a disturbing reenactment of colonialism. The fun, the pleasure, and the purported humor derived from “playing Indian” and acting out genocide is telling.

The sport media complex continues to let racism and racists off the hook. On the heels of debates over the DC name, and troubling agreement between the University of Illinois and a group determined to keep its racist mascot alive, ESPN sent a powerful to Native American communities and those working to end mascots: they are neither concerned about outrage nor worried about the harm of peddling in American racism. Their sanctioning of the performance and their worst than a faux-apologetic “No comment” tells us everything we need to know about ESPN and the sport industry it leads. Sadly, this does not surprise us. After all, ESPN is part of the Disney Empire — one built on cartoons.

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  • Delevan

    Changing the racist names of American sports teams will not happen because that would be an attack on white supremacy and white privilege.

  • Baakus

    It’s so funny how apologists try to claim that they have a right to use the term “Redskins” because an x% of Native Americans don’t find it offensive.

    As if they actually care what Native Americans think. These are probably the same people who think they have the right to use the N-word despite the overwhelming number of Black people who are extremely vociferous of how offensive it is when non-Black people use that term.

  • Miles_Ellison

    You’re expecting critical thinking, public engagement, and informed debate from the likes of ESPN? They don’t care about those things. It’s likely that they don’t even know what they mean. You’re lucky if you turn on ESPN and a babbling idiot ISN’T spouting nonsense.

  • Honest Abe

    “One would hope sport media outlets might take their civic duty to foster
    critical thinking, public engagement, and informed debated seriously.”

    that’s a pretty optimistic outlook about the role of sports media. one that i’m not sure is held by most people inside or outside their bubble. sports media is akin to video game ‘journalism’ in that it is largely meant to make money for the industry on which it reports. most deep and striking journalism about sports comes from outside that community.

    unless this was sarcasm in which case, nevermind

    • justlikeoldtimes

      I still wish Onion Sportsdome was still on TV. It was easily the most nuanced sports program on television in recent memory.