Ethics in Sport – Addressing Ethnic Stereotyping in Team Images and Fan Performances

Maulian Dana: Indigenous Peoples in Maine are Not Mascots

What ideals may be conveyed to the public through a medium of televised sports? When a team has adopted an ethnic stereotype as the team’s mascot, and when the public has forwarded the stereotype through conduct within the sports venue, where does the responsibility reside?

Traditional theorists about sport ethics may have focused mainly on the ethics of the conduct by teams on the playing field – for instance, as in the discussion of sport ethics developed by Robert L. Simon, in his book, Fair Play. Nonetheless, the representation of ethnic stereotypes in team mascots and in sports venues may find a relevance in discussions of traditional sport ethics, on a basis of the responsibilities of the commercial enterprise representing the individual sports team. By extension, the topic may find a relevance in an analysis of sports’ impact on the public.

Fans Follow the Lead – The Tomahawk Chop at a KC Game

For years, social activists representing the rights of Indigenous Peoples have been struggling against the ongoing misrepresentation of Indigenous Identity through team mascots, team branding, and fans’ conduct within the sports venue. In some recent successes, a number of commercial teams and schools have finally decided to abandon the racist stereotypes in team mascots and team branding. This is by no means an exhaustive list.

In Major League Baseball, the team previously identified as the the Cleveland Indians is now represented as the Cleveland Guardians . The team has abandoned the racist Chief Wahoo image, although continuing to sell commercial merchandise emblazoned with this racist icon.

In the National Football League, after years of direct action and newer pressure from the team’s commercial sponsorship, the team originally identified as the Washington Redskins has rebranded as the Washington Commanders.

In no complete departure, the Chicago Blackhawks – a National Hockey League team – has retained their ethnically-targeted mascot, although now limiting the conduct by fans at the match. The team has introduced a ban of stereotypical headwear commonly denoted as “Head dresses”, a style parodying ceremonial dress and social practices of Indigenous peoples.

Back at the NFL, the Kansas City Chiefs have also banned such fan headwear – at least at home games – and have retired the riding of the horse they’ve named Warpaint, in the stadium.

Absent of any more definitive leadership by KC team owners and regardless of peoples’ continuing protests about the issue, KC fans have continued with the racially demeaning practice of the “Tomahawk Chop”. For the practice of parodying indigenous drum ceremonies at KC games, this fundamentally racist practice is now, in effect, enshrined by the KC team ownership.

How does it affect people outside of the game?

The American Psychological Association has published a short summary about the psychological and social impacts of sports teams using ethnically targeted mascots. Quoting the President of the APA: “These mascots are teaching stereotypical, misleading and too often, insulting images of American Indians. These negative lessons are not just affecting American Indian students; they are sending the wrong message to all students.”

In an article for Native News Online, Levi Rickert provides a more personal perspective about the impacts of the practice. “Negative self-images hold back individuals and groups of people from success. Poor self-esteem leads to lack of trying and eventually failure. Poor self-esteem certainly can lead to suicide when combined with feelings of inadequacy, helplessness and hopelessness. So, I view the mascot issue as a significant problem that confronts Native people.”

So why would any sports teams persist in condoning, even leading this practice, and the harms are already publicly known? If one can speculate, perhaps the team owners may be more interested in any commercial incentives that they may believe that their appropriation of Indigenous imagery may have provided to their institution, rather than interested in acknowledging the negative impacts that the commercially-endorsed stereotyping has created up to this day. These impacts may be understood as being directed towards peoples already suffering generational trauma after and since the violent practices of national expansionism towards Peoples originally calling this continent Home.

If the team owners may have really understood the issue, is their commercial image of the team really so important for the performance of the sport on the ground level? or could it be all about the commercial bottom line?

Considering the example of the Washington Commanders today, does it take so much as a corporate action by commercial team sponsors, to inspire some owners of teams maintaining ethnically-targeted practices to seek a new way to represent their team? If there could be any Archimedian lever to the issue, could it be – in so much – about the team owners’ view of their commercial bottom line?

That may be an optimistic assumption.

In the efforts of civil society to maintain a fundamental respect for Peoples both within and without artifacts of commercial enterprise, perhaps the last song has not yet been sung. #StopTheChop


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *