GRAND RAPIDS, Mich — This past weekend, the Muskegon Big Reds hosted my alma mater in the first round of the high school football playoffs. Marquette Senior High School came to town.
I grew up the youngest of four children. I have two sisters ahead of me, and a brother, who's the oldest. From a very young age, I remember watching my older siblings play high school sports. Jeff was a hockey player—won a state title. Lisa was a U.P. state diving champ. Shelly was an amazing basketball player and track star.
High school sports were a big thing in my family. I was an athlete, too. Soccer was probably my best sport. But we didn't have a high school team. And I, frankly, wasn't good enough to make the high school team. Not a lot of people looking for 5-foot-6 goalies. Actually, I probably wasn't five-six yet in high school!
Anyway, I was still a big fan of my high school and the sports programs. Even though, I had a twinge of awkwardness about it at the time. I didn't know how to articulate it at the time or how to really feel about it. But I knew something wasn't quite right.
As a grown man, I know exactly how I feel. I know exactly what was wrong. And I can certainly articulate it: Our school mascot is blatantly racist.
I didn't truly understand the history of the word "Redmen" when I was young. I certainly didn't understand the problem with the big Indian head logo on our school building and sports jerseys. It was just normal. I'd seen similar logos—and still do today—on major sports jerseys like the Chicago Blackhawks. I saw and heard similar names and still do today, like the Washington Redskins.
I also grew up in a town that was more than 95 percent white. So the people being slurred by the Redmen name and logo weren't overly prevalent. And let's be honest, even if there was a massive native population, a minority community's voice is rarely heard very loudly. But, again, it never felt quite right. I'd be in class reading or watching TV, seeing stories about how the United States nearly committed genocide against a race of people. And they were adorning our jerseys. I typically understood most mascots to be animals. So, why pick people?
I knew about other names named after groups and races of people. The Vikings in Minnesota. The Eskimos down in Escanaba. But, to my knowledge, neither of those groups were murdered on mass scales or after systemic killing, went away assimilated into a white culture.
I'm not naive about this topic. And I know opinions are varied and passionate. I'm aware some sports teams—like the Cleveland Indians—named their team as a way to honor someone. I know there are tribes around the country that—to varying degrees—support names based on native names and symbols. The Florida State Seminoles come to mind.
But, I think Tribe names, like Seminoles, are different than something like "Redmen," which is widely considered within Native communities to be a slur, not wholly unlike the N-word in black communities.
I also think that we make a major mistake when having this discussion when we criticize people who are long-time fans of these logos and names BECAUSE they're fans. If you're an 80-year-old man who went to particular high school with a racist nickname, played on the football team, watching his children and grandchildren play on those school teams, you have to understand that there is a deep-rooted association and affection for that name, those colors and those logos.
Ask any Washington Redskins fan. They grew up with those colors, images and names. And as much as many of us say, "It's just a sports team," many don't feel that way. That's been the case around the country and here in west Michigan.
Recently the Belding Redskins became the Belding Black Knights. That change came with all the arguments you would expect. But they got there. And I think we're getting there more and more as a society for one very simple reason: things change. That includes the meaning and impact of words.
Let's go back to the N-word. 100 years ago, it was perfectly acceptable in every day conversation to use that word. Today, no way.
Even words that have replaced the n-word have gone out of usage. Negro. Colored. These were both words society adopted as a way to refer to African Americans that I would never use as a descriptor in personal conversation or, especially, on TV.
But remember: These were the REPLACEMENT words. And today, even THEY are considered offensive. We change and what's considered widely offensive or okay changes with us.
Other words I don't normally say—but will for the sake of this podcast—like retarded are no longer considered polite, appropriate, kosher, acceptable. How we as a society view those words—rightly or wrongly—has changed. And they've, to varying degrees, fallen out of the popular lexicon.
There are other Native American words, too, that are getting more criticism. Look up the word squaw. Or, don't, actually. I'l fill you in. It's a really bad word for female genitalia. And that word has been used for rivers, valleys and hills, etc.
Even more mundane or medical terms. Everyone know what Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is. Know what it was originally called? Shell Shock. But, for whatever reasons, that phraseology is basically dead. It's evolved into PTSD.
That IS happening with names like Redskins and Redmen. When the Redskins came into being in 1932, it was obviously more acceptable, otherwise the team would have never gotten the name. Now, there's obviously push back.
For me, personally, as I've grown older, I've just become less and less of a fan of my high school sticking with that name. I'll give partial credit. They got rid of the Indian head logo several yeas ago and the main image now is simply a block-M. A friend of mine who still lives in Marquette says the name and imagery are slowly fading away. Which is good. But the name is still Redmen. And until that's gone, I won't be able to root for the team, and I'll never wear any apparel.
This is an issue that probably isn't going to go away any time soon. People—like me—who think we should move away from Native American sports mascots, at least the slurs, are and will be looked at by many as overly sensitive. People who say they should stay the same will be looked at by many as racists. Let's consider that both of those assumptions are just wrong.
People who want them changed have genuine reasons. People who want them to stay have genuine reasons. Working from a place of understanding might actually lead to some kind of progress.
Before I end this, I do have to make a full disclosure. I'm a member of the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. My percentage of native blood is very small. But, I AM a member of the tribe. Although I didn't know about my descendancy until well into adulthood, and didn't become a member until I was in my late 20s. I don't think any of that should have any bearing on my thoughts. But, you may. Which is why I wanted to make sure I was up front about it.
Listen to more Alone At The Desk podcasts at:
►Make it easy to keep up to date with more stories like this. Download the 13 ON YOUR SIDE app now.