At their best, sports bring people together, creating a sense of community where all are welcome. Many columns have been written about the power of sports and their ability to heal and educate, with Nelson Mandela stating that “sport has the power to change the world.” We celebrate victories around televisions and laptops and pack ourselves into massive stadiums, all for a common reason. But if the messages of equality and community are things professional sports want us to accept, why do we, as a country, accept racism and inequality at almost every level? With baseball season come and gone, we shouldn’t wait until next spring training for the annual conversation about racist mascots to surface. Systemic racism exists in sports. Since we’ve already acknowledged that fact, let’s continue the dialogue.
On the morning of October 11, CBC columnist Jesse Wente sat down with Metro Morning’s Matt Galloway and spoke about the racism inherent in some sports mascots. The columnist called for swift change in media culture. He asked journalists to stop being “bystanders” and assume a more engaged position with the audience—using their influence to force millions to listen. Wente also took the conversation to Twitter, using the hashtag #NotYourMascot as a way to further the dialogue surrounding the issue.
“The most marginalized people in Canada are Indigenous people,” Wente said in an interview with the Ryerson Review of Journalism. “We’ve been saying the same thing for decades, it’s just that now Indigenous people have a voice and a platform, even in the mainstream media.”
Those opposed to changing these mascots and names take offence to the idea that politics have found their way into the realm of sports, as if an arena of competition is walled off from the issues just outside its doors. In February, Toronto Star columnist Rosie DiManno wrote a piece about the mascot controversy, calling out the “professional taste inquisitors” trying to colour our world “beige, bland, and banal.” DiManno also wrote that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s effect has become something where “a bunch of self-anointed censors appropriate historical injustice and squeeze it through the sanitizing wringer.” DiManno argues that the Chicago Blackhawks logo (and, presumably, Cleveland’s Chief Wahoo) is intended to “honour” Indigenous communities. “Pejorative,” she says, “is in the eye of the beholder. Appropriation is up the nose of the stiff-necked.” DiManno’s thoughts on the subject are the societal misunderstanding of Wente’s argument in microcosm. It has nothing do with baseball. “Baseball didn’t create colonialism, and it didn’t create racism,” says Wente. The larger issue here is that professional sports are reinforcing an unwelcome message that puts tradition before equitable change. “We live in a society where the over-culture gets to decide what’s racist and what isn’t,” Wente said. “The privileged feel like they have the right to do this, but it’s not up to the oppressor to tell the oppressed what does and doesn’t exist.”
It’s the blind acceptance of tradition that TSN radio personality and former Winnipeg Blue Bomber Troy Westwood has an issue with. Westwood takes to task those who lean on the argument of “it’s just sports” to justify the “banality” of racist team names and logos. He noted that it’s the acceptance of traditions like these that allow decades’ worth of change and progressive thinking to become moot points.
“I’ve been in this debate for decades with a lot of people with the same heart and mind about it and, ultimately, it comes down to a conquering nation putting into caricature images and names of the conquered nation,” Westwood said. “A lot of people say ‘it’s just sports’ and lean on the ridiculousness of tradition. Well, when you start talking about tradition, let’s talk about the tradition of Black people supposed to be sitting on a certain part of the bus. There’s a scroll of traditions that you could present from the history of this continent that are completely unacceptable right now, and the names and logos are just like that.”
It’s an unwelcome message that states that the majority get to decide what is and what isn’t racist. Implying that these issues have no place in sports destroys the important role sports can play in our society; they can anchor larger conversations about overarching issues. Sports can catalyze discussion about day-to-day issues—unless we ignorantly say “it’s just sports.” When San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick sparked a national debate by kneeling during the American national anthem to protest systemic police brutality against Black people, his decision dominated headlines and editorials and even caused minds in the highest echelons of government to reconsider. After initially calling his protest “really dumb,” Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg stepped back her initial statement, calling it “inappropriately dismissive and harsh.”
Later in his interview with Wente, Galloway asked him if he buys the argument that the team names and mascots he called racist are actually empowering or affectionate. Wente balked.
“I think they can only be seen as affectionate when you come from a colonial world view. I don’t think that is actually how cultures behave with one another when they don’t come from, ultimately, a patriarchal and colonial world nature,” Wente said. “They’re symbols, ultimately, of the oppression and violence that occurred on this land to make Indigenous people go away.” As Ojibwa journalism student and Indigenous rights activist Kyle Edwards points out, those who argue that these names and logos are used to honour Indigenous peoples are disregarding the Indian Act, high Indigenous suicide rates, and the 158 “do not consume” water advisories across 114 different First Nation communities.
“I’ve always viewed logos and team names as ways of honouring us without actually doing anything about the real issues,” Edwards said. “It’s about respect, and respect isn’t giving misguided sports fans an excuse to dress up in our regalia or a headdress. Respect requires education and an understanding of history.” Despite occasional calls to action, Edwards is doubtful that there’ll be any real change. He’s heard that refrain before, he says, but hasn’t seen any results.
“I think it’s great that there are people who refuse to use the term Indian [in sports], but what happens when two million people by 2030 are still living under the Indian act?” Edwards said.
“We need to embrace discomfort,” says Wente. “I wake up in discomfort everyday. By sharing the discomfort around these issues, we can make things more comfortable for future generations. But these conversations are still very hard to have under the guise of a culture that still finds mascots acceptable.”
Wente isn’t asking that sports be torn from our social consciousness, but instead the exact opposite. Wente, a huge Jays fan—who chokes on popcorn every time Joey goes long—is calling for a greater focus on the human interactions affected by the physical actions on the field. While Washington, Cleveland, or the local Mississauga Chiefs play their game, we need to recognize the implications of a piece of fabric. We talk a lot about sports as shining representations of our society, but at times, even in the midst of controversy, they actually are. Think of Jerry Horvath referring to the Indians simply as “Cleveland” since the late 1990s. This offers a chance at having a much-needed dialogue at the highest level of professional sports. At the local level, consider a team out of Alvinston, Ontario, who changed their name and logo, previously in line with racist depictions of Indigenous peoples. If journalists like Jesse Wente, Troy Westwood, and Kyle Edwards can keep up this dialogue, they will help create significant change, and not just in the world of sports. So, now that the World Series is well over, let’s put away with the traditions and the normalities. Instead, let’s take the trappings of a national pastime and turn them on their head. Let’s show that simple physical movements, arbitrary hand gestures and isolated rule books can affect the lives of millions—not just for the sake of entertainment, but also to provide everyone with the ability to participate.