Mascots and Tradition
Issue   |   Wed, 09/11/2013 - 01:02

Robert Griffin III’s knee. Chip Kelly’s offense. The sports world buzzed about those topics before Monday night’s matchup between the Washington Redskins and the Philadelphia Eagles. Robert Griffin III didn’t have a triumphant return from ACL surgery like Adrian Peterson last year. In fact, he looked uncomfortable in the pocket facing live action for the first time since the Redskins’ Jan. 9 loss to the Seahawks. He struggled for three quarters before coming alive in the fourth; almost leading an improbable comeback by throwing for 276 yards and 2 TDs in the second half, yet still finishing with a Total QBR of 15.7.

Chip Kelly brought his “Blur” offense from Univ. of Oregon and showed why the Eagles pace of play as well as their schemes are giving defensive coordinators nightmares. His offense wasn’t stopped except by their own miscues, and validated the Eagles decision to hire a coach with no NFL experience. The Eagles should be an exciting team to watch and will be one of the better stories of the season after a disappointing campaign in Andy Reid’s last season at the helm.

What wasn’t talked about much was the controversy surrounding the Washington Redskins’ name. Peter King, one of the sports world’s premier reporters, decided that he is no longer going to use the word “Redskins” in his reporting. He wasn’t comfortable using the name anymore because many consider the Redskins’ name a racial slur. The issue has been controversial for many years, and the controversy is coming to the forefront once again as the Redskins have reemerged from years of mediocrity to become a playoff contender.

The team was first called the Redskins in 1933 after the team changed their name from the Boston Braves, and it stuck when the team moved to the Washington D.C. in 1937. The team has a checkered history, as it was the last team in professional football to integrate in 1962, and that was only after the threat of a lawsuit by the federal government.

Now the franchise is at an inflection point. Facing renewed pressure from not only the Native American community, but also from the public at large, the organization must make a decision about the franchise’s name. It seems that Dan Synder, the Redskins owner, has made his decision. When asked about changing the Redskins’ name by a USA Today reporter he replied, “We’ll never change the name. It’s that simple. NEVER—you can use caps.” He has been lambasted for his response to the controversy, but is all of the criticism warranted?

A very complicated answer is required to address that question. It is key to understand the origins of the term “redskin." The first recorded use of the word “redskin” occurred in 1769 in negotiations between the Piankashaw Indians and American settlers. Europeans didn’t make up the term. In fact, it was a term used by Native Americans to distinguish themselves from white settlers. The term became widely used by Native Americans as Europeans spread throughout the New World, and didn’t have negative connotations until later in the 19th century.

However, there is a striking dichotomy between the usage of the word “redskin” in a sports environment and in everyday life. A Washington Post poll from June 2013 showed that 80% of respondents felt that the Redskins should keep their name, but that over half the people in that group agreed that the term is inappropriate to use outside of that context. So what does that all mean?

The nation is divided on whether “Washington’s football team” as D.C. mayor Vincent Gray likes to call the Redskins should change their name or not. The NFL believes that the name, “Has always been positive and has always been used in a highly respective manner,” but is having a highly stylized logo of a Native American on helmets, jerseys, t-shirts, sweatshirts, etc. an appropriate mascot for a professional sports team?

The argument surrounding the Redskins name change hits home at Amherst. There has been a movement to change Amherst’s mascot, and it has picked up momentum in recent years. It is an interesting proposition to consider; Amherst College with out Lord Jeffery’s name following. What would Amherst be called? The Amherst College Rebels? Pirates? Dolphins?

Why the controversy? Why does part of the Amherst community want to change the college’s mascot? Again, that is a relatively simple question with a complex answer. Lord Jeffery Amherst was the Commander-in-Chief of the British Army in North America, and is regarded in popular legend for single handedly wining Canada for the British during the French and Indian War. Naming a town for a well-regarded war hero seems reasonable, but contemporary activists believe that the town needs to drop Lord Jeffery Amherst’s name because he ordered subordinates to distribute smallpox infested blankets to Native American tribes, although there has significant debate around his involvement.

There is also no connection between Lord Jeffery Amherst and the College. The first mention of him in connection with the College wasn’t until 1906, when James Shelley Hamilton ’06 wrote the song “Lord Jeffery Amherst” which was meant to be ironic and satirical. Although there is no direct connection between the College and Lord Amherst, the mascot has become an enduring Amherst tradition.

As an institution, we must acknowledge the history of Lord Jeffery Amherst and the terrible things that happened to Native Americans under his watch. However, erasing his name from Amherst College’s history is not the right answer. Wearing the Amherst “A” onto the sports field or into a classroom is a source of pride for many Amherst students and alums, and connects current students with the Amherst students who walked this campus before them. Wearing that “A” symbolizes that the College and society as a whole has and will continue to recognize the horrible history of America’s treatment of Native Americans.

The kind of student that the College seeks to attract is one who is wholly interested in taking on conversations like the one about Amherst’s mascot and embracing discomfort while working to understand the intricacies of who Lord Jeffery Amherst is and how bearing his name affects the institution. What will it say about this institution if we are so willing to put almost 200 years of history aside for the sake of political correctness and historical revisionism? Instead, the College should embrace its history instead of trying to erase the very mention of Lord Amherst.

Greater awareness and sensitivity about America’s shameful treatment of Native Americans alongside the desire to respect and preserve traditions has polarized the nation surrounding the use of mascots like the Redskins and Lord Jeff. Debates about mascots and their meanings are often a microcosm for greater societal discussions, and how history unfolds on this issue will speak volumes about the nation.
But in the end can everyone be happy?

Anon (not verified) says:
Wed, 09/11/2013 - 14:57

Well, if we want to get rid of the Lord Jeff because of the negative connotations associated with the name, should we also strive to change the name of the school too? Or even the town? Or is it ok to have Amherst as a school name, but Lord Jeffrey Amherst as a mascot simply unacceptable?

Dazed and Confused (not verified) says:
Wed, 09/11/2013 - 20:20

I'm so grateful that someone thought to show just as much sympathy to my not giving a shit about systems of oppression as they did to those poor Native Americans getting perpetually oppressed. All viewpoints, after all, deserve perfectly equal treatment.

I am also thrilled at the brilliance of this author for noting that changing our hugely unpopular mascot would constitute putting "200 years of history aside for the sake of political correctness." Just because you can't apply to the conclusion rationally doesn't mean it's not true.

Anonymous (not verified) says:
Thu, 09/12/2013 - 08:55

but dude, you need to think about it some more. It's not about "political correctness." Imagine if you were a native american student attending this College. Would you feel comfortable with the Lord Jeff being your mascot? Could you go to football games and cheer for someone who ostensibly took part in the murder of your ancestors? I'm not sure the scholarly debate around the part he played in that genocide is as lively as you mentioned. Whether or not the smallpox blankets were his idea, he is quoted in his letters as supporting any means to mass-extermination of the local native populations. It's kind of fucked up that you call admitting this truth (again, confirmed by the man's letters) "historical revisionism."

Anonymous (not verified) says:
Sat, 09/14/2013 - 13:01

I think Andy was merely making the point that, in the end, the mascot is a mascot--not a figurehead, not a symbolic caricature of the school or team at large, and most certainly not homage to a historical figure--simply an outlet for our in-group tendencies and a bent towards the competitive. Almost any mascot can be scrutinized and construed to be denigrating in someway (think fighting irish, trojan, seminole) but it would be overkill and ultimately ineffective if we alter all our names for some pretentious and petulant minority. Yes, amherst college is a hotbed for liberal bullshit the world over. I've only been here a few weeks and the political correctness is already oozing. But to take our self-righteous and cursory gripes out on a peaceful, loving sports writer is just goddamn childish. Please, Amherst, for the sake of all our sanity, grow up.

anonymous (not verified) says:
Thu, 09/19/2013 - 13:51