If you had to pick one social issue that would inevitably blow up this year, the use of Native American sports team mascots would have been a good guess. For upper-midwesterners, this saga is hardly newsworthy, but the rate at which this controversy has metastasized to national attention is astonishing.

Last week, a local Minnesota high school, Warroad, found itself on the receiving end of pressure to remove its Native American logo. The National Coalition Against Racism in Sports and Media sent the school district and several other high schools letters threatening lawsuits if Native American images were not removed.

Though the NCARSM’s website looks like something I pieced together in my ninth grade HTML class, it ostensibly represents Native American tribes concerned that they are being harmed by the use of these mascots and nicknames.

While these tribes have every right to voice their displeasure, it’s hard to see how continually picking this fight will benefit their members aside from producing a quick political victory. Everyone agrees that Native Americans face much more pressing issues, like rampant poverty, sky-high unemployment and the spread of online gambling and lotteries that could cannibalize tribal casino revenues.

But bashing people over the head over the use of Native American imagery makes for good publicity. And with US race relations sadly at their lowest point since the Rodney King riots, anyone playing the ethnic oppression card is automatically awarded public sympathy.

When I last wrote about this subject last summer, national angst was growing but still targeted primarily at the Washington Redskins, who boast the most blatant of all such nicknames.

12 months later, little has changed aside from the intensity of the debate. Redskins’ owner Dan Snyder is still on the receiving end of outrage from every angle imaginable over his refusal to change the team’s name. The US Patent Office nullified the team’s trademark, members of Congress have peppered Snyder with angry letters and some influential publications now only refer to the Redskins as the “Washington-based NFL team”.

But the debate is spilling over into other jurisdictions once again. A Democratic candidate for governor in Ohio is demanding that Chief Wahoo, the Cleveland Indians’ mascot, must go. Several states have banned outright the use of Native American imagery.

Fueling the fire have been insensitive race remarks made by LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling and the execution-style shooting of a black teenager by a white cop in St. Louis. Michael Brown, the killed teen, has now become a martyr for any person or group who feels they have been disenfranchised in some way or not received something they felt they were entitled to.

Perhaps drawing the linkage between these events is a stretch, but the principle holds true that the hyper-charged atmosphere of racial and ethnic tension encourages and even incentivizes people to take these stances – as long as they are framed as a means of promoting social progress.

Maybe the solution is for Congress to pass a law requiring that every college and high school change their team nickname to the “Eagles”. But even then, it would only be a matter of time before the National Association of Bird Appreciators began to gripe, thereby starting the entire process over again.


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