Adidas helps HS teams swap out Native American mascots

Is corporate, legal, and moral pressure against Native American sports team mascots reaching a tipping point?

Mark J. Rebilas/ USA TODAY
Washington Redskins fans pass protestors outside a game against the Arizona Cardinals at the University of Phoenix Stadium in this October 2014 file photo. Most Native American groups protest the use of mascots, which they consider derogatory. Many publications have decided not to print the team's full name, including the Washington Post.

Adidas announced Thursday that it would provide free mascot designs to high schools interested in dropping Native American-inspired mascots, adding a corporate voice to the growing movement of activists, politicians, and media who say that Native peoples are #NotYourMascot.

"Today, we can add another story on how sports bring people together and provide common ground to ignite change," executive board member Eric Liedtke said as he announced the program, which will also provide financial support, at the White House Tribal Nations Conference on Thursday. 

For years, Native American tribes have pressured sports teams, from local schools to national franchises, to drop names, imagery, and fan behavior that they consider dehumanizing, but teams such as the Braves, Warriors, and Redskins still remain in 2,000 high schools and high-profile professional teams, most notoriously the Washington Redskins NFL team. 

Many communities, and CEOs, have dug in their heels. 

"We'll never change the name," Washington team owner Dan Snyder told USA Today two years ago. "It's that simple. NEVER — you can use caps."

Meanwhile, the US Patent and Trademark Office has canceled the NFL team's trademarks, and publications and reporters from the New York Times to Sports Illustrated, including the Washington Post, have pledged not to print their name, which they consider a slur.

According to a California State University poll, 67 percent of Native Americans find the word racist, compared with 33 percent of white Americans.  

A handful of tribes say that other Native-inspired teams, such as 'Warriors' or 'Braves,' can be inoffensive if paired with educational initiatives to teach fans about tribes' history, and most importantly, their life today – something few Americans know about, period. 

"I don't believe that a menacing-looking brave on the backboard of a basketball hoop is going to marginalize that child as much as [generations of] trauma," Saginaw Chippewas public relations director Frank Cloutier told ESPN. "That said, however, I believe that these schools using these images have an obligation to talk about the truth of Native American history. One of the largest genocides in world history happened right here on American soil." His nation helps make that possible through a partnership with nearby Central Michigan University. 

The American Psychological Association has recommended removing Native American mascots completely, saying that they harm all students, regardless of ethnicity. Such symbols "teach non-Indian children that it's acceptable to participate in culturally abusive behavior and perpetuate inaccurate misconceptions about American Indian culture," the APA wrote in a 2005 statement. 

Some states, and the White House, are listening. As Travis Waldron recaps for the Huffington Post, Oregon, California, and Colorado have all passed legislation to ban, or to consider banning, such mascots. 

In June, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan tweeted his support for one high school team willing to make the change: 

 The Obama administration has also chimed in elsewhere. Concluding a listening tour where Education Department officials heard from 1,000 Native students across the country, the Department issued a report urging schools to shed discriminatory mascots

"In high school, my mascot was the 'Redskins' and I had to watch my classmates make posters saying we are going to 'skin' our sports opponents. The other teams would make posters that said they are going to send us home on a 'trail of tears,'" one college student told them in Oklahoma City. 

As Professor David P. Rider, of Xavier University of Louisiana, has pointed out, most popular sports teams are named for "species whose numbers have declined precipitously in the past 500 years, hunted to the brink of extinction." He suggests that may not be dissimilar to how many view Native Americans. 

Indeed, the fact that most Americans don't personally know Native people may be why it's taken so long for the anti-mascot movement to gain momentum, says Joel Barkin, the Vice President of Communications for Oneida Nation, and a spokesman for advocacy group Change the Mascot. 

But he believes progress is being made.

"It’s been a tidal wave," he says, observing that pressure has grown to a point where teams can no longer tell themselves, "“Don’t engage, and it will go away."

Mr. Barkin calls it "very gratifying" to see companies like Adidas realize that it pays off, both financially and morally, to declare themselves "on the side of mutual respect, diversity, inclusion": a message that has special resonance as sports become "the universal language of our country" in an era of otherwise polarized media. 

"You can really make a positive out of this, and that’s what the NFL has been slow to figure out," he says, emphasizing that making the change will lead to more rewards and respect than losses. 

But while Change the Mascot appreciates gestures like Adidas's, they also points to grassroots efforts as the heart of change.

In 2013, the organization purchased new uniforms for high schoolers in Cooperstown, New York, who independently voted to drop a Native mascot "just because they understood it was the right thing to do." Moments like that, Mr. Barkin says, are evidence that the "constructive, positive model is working." 

America has moved on, he says; now it's up to the teams to catch up. 

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