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What’s in a Nickname?

August 30, 2001

Does PC stand for Politically Correct, or Plumb Crazy? Sometimes you have to wonder.

The hot topic in Montgomery County, Maryland, is the local school board’s decision that Poolesville High School must give up its sports teams’ nickname, the Indians. It seems the nickname is demeaning to ... oh, you know the line.

In May, 60 per cent of the people of Poolesville voted to keep the nickname. It doesn’t violate any laws or even transgress against the countless corollaries the federal judiciary has found lurking in the penumbras emanating from the U.S. Constitution. Even most local Indians don’t seem to mind it.

But leave it to liberal government officials to militate on behalf of “sensitivity,” a word that keeps cropping up in rationales for the dictate. Some people make careers of taking offense, even vicariously. The tinier the matter you can take offense at, the more refined your sympathies for the accredited victim classes.

One distressing exercise of sensitivity, in this baneful sense, occurred in a recent article about C.S. Lewis’s Narnia stories, in which Judith Shulevitz of the New York Times Book Review managed to find a trace of anti-Semitism, though the book in question makes no mention of Jews. What made this “discovery” distressing was that the article was, on the whole, a very fine appreciation of Lewis’s work — sensitive in the best sense. (I’ve even read an article detecting anti-Semitism in the movie Star Wars. Don’t ask.)

What’s so perverse about the drive to purge sports teams of Indian nicknames is that the names are meant not to demean, but to honor. The American Indian — sensitively redubbed the “Native American” — has long since become a symbol of qualities we want athletes to emulate, such as valor and ferocity. The American paleface tends to sentimentalize the people his government once tried to exterminate.

[Breaker quote: Focusing on the 
real problem]In the same way, sports teams adopt the names of animals that signify power, speed, grace, and other admirable traits: lions and tigers and bears, for example. By the logic of the exquisitely sensitive, this must be insulting to predators of the wild. Why doesn’t People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals object?

A glance through the sports pages yields a long (though far from complete) list of our animal friends: dolphins, alligators, cardinals, orioles, ravens, rams, bison, bulls, longhorns, diamondbacks, colts, broncos, bruins, terrapins, penguins, panthers, jaguars, devil rays, blue jays, marlins, falcons, seahawks, eagles, lizards, cubs. Are team sports fostering contempt for all these species? By the same token, does calling a team the Padres, the Saints, or the Angels encourage anti-Catholic bigotry?

Of course not. The real problem is, if anything, just the opposite. Some team nicknames glorify not only animal predators, but human ones as well. And this is what really ought to concern us.

As a defender of property rights, I am deeply offended by sports teams whose names exalt despoliation. I refer, of course, to calling athletes “pirates” and “buccaneers.” Thanks to Hollywood, these cruel criminals of yore now enjoy romantic and heroic associations in the popular mind. Maybe these marine vermin now seem quaint and harmless, but in their own time they terrorized the seas.

What kind of message are we sending to our kids when we glamorize such outlaws? Bear in mind that piracy was internationally recognized as a capital crime. It still is, and there are some parts of the world where it still exists. It should be neither celebrated nor minimized.

Please join me in urging the professional sports teams of Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay to find new team nicknames. Also, your donations to this worthy cause are urgently needed. Just make out your check or money order to my organization, the name of which, to avoid any possible offense to minority groups, is simply Cash.

Let me close on an upbeat note. Fortunately, the most egregious team nickname of all time is long since defunct. A generation ago the team moved to another city and adopted a new identity; but for many years before that, while it remained in Washington, D.C., its players bore the shameful name of a despicable class of parasites: the Senators.

No wonder they had to leave town and change their name.

Joseph Sobran

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