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Beyond the 'Redskins': Lions and Tigers and Bears

By       Message Randy Malamud     Permalink
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In the wake of controversy over the Washington football team's branding, I'd like to note another group of names that also reflects regrettable prejudices.

Little more need be said about the "Redskins" morass. And after that organization concedes defeat, the Atlanta Braves, the Cleveland Indians, and the Chicago Blackhawks will have to continue the important discussion about what team names and symbols mean, and how the commercial appropriation of these images causes cultural offense.

I suggest that we carry the conversation even further to consider all the team names that invoke--and trivialize, and mischaracterize--animals.

Consider the Cincinnati Bengals, Jacksonville Jaguars, Atlanta Falcons, and Philadelphia Eagles, among many others. Most people don't get too worked up about this incongruity of describing a team (of people) as something they're not, but it sticks in my craw. Look: I just used an animal metaphor right there. It's hard to avoid, and I don't mean to forbid interspecies figurative language, but I think such borrowings (or perhaps thefts?) of animals' identities, and their essences, are teachable moments when we might think more deeply than we usually do about how our language and cultural habits define us as a species and in relation to the rest of the living world that surrounds us.

In my research, I study images of animals ("other animals," as I remind my audiences, since we human beings are animals ourselves--something we often forget as we imagine ourselves at the pinnacle of a "great chain of being"). My working hypothesis is that people almost always misrepresent other animals when we recycle them in popular culture, and that this distortion is ecologically and ethically dangerous. We are in the throes of environmental crisis on so many fronts--species extinctions, deforestation, global warming, polluted oceans, overpopulation, and so on--so we must work to become better, not worse, at recognizing and appreciating the value of all the other living beings with whom we share our planet. ("With whom" is an intentional phrase here, rather than "with which": it's one more way of challenging our default attitudes in the hope that we can start to think and act in a more enlightened mode.)

Other animals serve copiously as symbols for activities such as team sports that have nothing to do with the animals' actual existence or integrity (and I don't buy the argument that by calling a team the Lions, we are paying homage to the power and valor of lions). The profusion of animal mascots and icons squeezes out whatever space might be in our minds, in our "better selves," for thinking about who these animals really are: what their lives are like, how human culture threatens them, and why it is imperative that we improve our methods of cohabiting with them. We need to share and conserve, not exploit and toxify, all the habitats and elements that we need to sustain life.

The "animals" that we mostly see around us in our world are not real penguins but Pittsburgh Penguins; not real wolves but Minnesota Timberwolves ... along with VW Rabbits, Ford Raptors, Tony the Tiger, and myriad others of this ilk. When animals get rebranded as cars, teams, or other acculturated baubles and fetishes, they lose their authentic spirit, making it easier for people to regard human culture as exceptional, isolated, transcendent, self-sufficient. We construe ourselves not a species that lives alongside many other animals, but rather, as a species that uses other species voraciously--for food, fur, entertainment, mascots, what you will.

This perspective is inaccurate and dangerous: dishonest. If we lose sight of the (real) cardinals and beatles, hornets and seahawks, our ecosystem will collapse. If they die, we die.

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We need to appreciate lions, jaguars, and eagles on their own terms. They are important not because they are a part of us, but because they are apart from us. They don't play football.

The heated national argument taking place about the "Redskins" has arisen because the team's appropriation of Native American identity undercuts the social harmony, the diversity and mutual respect, that a just society would ideally hope to achieve. The Washington team uses the culture that its name invokes in a way that is insensitive, semiotically condescending, ignorant of historical cycles of genocidal violence, and simply racist.

Let us extrapolate this awareness by considering how animal-named teams, too, contribute to chauvinistic disrespect toward "other" (and "lesser") elements of our community. When we think of dolphins, our first association should not be Don Shula, Dan Marino, and aqua-and-orange logos. It should be, rather, the magnificence and the tragedies of these cetacean mammals: the fascinating intricacies of their social structures, their dazzling swift patterns of movement, their elaborate vocalizations; and also, alongside this, the suffering and deaths they experience because of ocean pollution, indiscriminate commercial fishing, exploitation in "marine park" captivity, and torture in mass slaughters as revealed in the 2009 documentary The Cove.

The idea that team names celebrate the nobility of other animals is as dissonant as the belief that the "Redskins" affirm the nobility of our country's first people. Native Americans have rejected this proposition forcefully and eloquently. If other animals could speak to us, I feel sure they would pose the same objections.

I firmly believe that other animals want us to respect them more and treat them better, and one way we can begin to do so is by letting go of the idea that the highest compliment we can pay them is to name a team after them. A better way to show respect is to listen to them, to think equitably rather than imperially about them, to pay attention to (and work to remediate) their current difficulties. In a nutshell: stop overconsuming, stop polluting, stop destroying their habitats.

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I don't like to criticize without also suggesting solutions. The Cleveland Browns were named after their first coach, Paul Brown--what a great idea, naming a football team after a football player! Imagine the Atlanta Aarons, The New York Ruths, the Brooklyn or LA Robinsons, the Pittsburgh Clementes. If teams created and embraced these sorts of identities, they would truly be foregrounding what is most powerful and valuable about their enterprise, instead of perpetuating legacies of exploitation.

Soccer teams boast an especially engaging range of admirably appropriate names that connote genuinely human action, skills, and competitive energies: the Houston Dynamo, the Montreal Impact, the Seattle Reign, the Ottawa Fury, the Tampa Bay Rowdies. In other leagues, the Miami Heat, Orlando Magic, Washington Wizards, and San Francisco Giants are all completely acceptable to me, as are the Houston Texans--a team name that describes simply and accurately exactly what they are.

Names have meaning and implications; words can improve or diminish our world and our sense of how we fit in this world. Let's use the occasion of this groundswell against the most egregiously offensive team name as a moment to look at all the ways we can more intelligently envision ourselves and our proper place among all the other creatures.

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Regents' Professor of English, Georgia State University

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Beyond the 'Redskins': Lions and Tigers and Bears