Sports teams and mascots should bring us together, not tear us apart.
In the past few weeks, I've been a bit ashamed to admit I'm a New York Giants fan. With a 1-6 season record, the 2012 Super Bowl champions have looked downright embarrassing this year. But there's one thing that doesn't embarrass me about the Giants — the team name.
I've been a sports fan since I was a kid, and I've lived in enough cities to develop allegiances to several teams across the country. As a native St. Louisan and a former Bostonian, for example, I have two hometown teams in the current Cardinals-Red Sox World Series. And no one in my current hometowns of New York and Miami seems to understand how I can root for both the Knicks and the Heat.
But I also lived eight years in Washington, D.C., and despite all that time I never developed an allegiance to any of its sports teams. Of course, I was preoccupied with my work in the newly forming Clinton administration when I moved to D.C. in December 1992, but there still wasn't much to cheer about for Washington sports fans. That year, the Bullets would go on to finish the season at the bottom of the NBA's Atlantic Division with a shameful 22–60 record, the Redskins would finish third in the NFC East, and the Washington Nationals baseball team didn't exist yet.
Something unexpected happened in November 1995 that redeemed my faith. That was the year when Bullets owner Abe Pollin announced he was changing the name of the team. "Unfortunately, far too often these days 'bullets' in the news does not have anything to do with basketball," Pollin announced. In a city that had been plagued by gun violence, Pollin said he "realized we should consider changing our name." After a fan-based contest and a little bit of controversy, the Bullets eventually became the Washington Wizards in 1997.
Although Pollin's widow has recently expressed a willingness to reconsider the name change, her husband's bold move in the 1990s helped me understand why I had so little affinity toward the city's other major sports team. It was the name that was holding me back. I already had a history with offensive team names.
A few years before I moved to D.C., I had graduated from Dartmouth College, 15 years after the school repudiated its Indian symbol. But even after the school banned the offensive symbol, the mascot had taken on a life of its own among right-wing alumni and conservative students who refused to give it up.
I never understood that. If a group of people tells you that something you're doing is offending them, why wouldn't you listen to them? How is it possible that people in a majority group are allowed to dictate what should or should not offend people in an oppressed minority group? Dartmouth realized this once the college started recruiting Native Americans in the 1970s and the new students expressed their objection to the symbol. But that didn't stop the conservatives.
In my freshman year, I watched as ignorant classmates adorned themselves in feathers and face paint and chanted "Wa-Hoo-Wa" at football games. They were mostly clueless, privileged white kids who somehow felt oppressed by the deprivation of their freedom to oppress others. Why were they so invested in protecting a distorted piece of history that had nothing to do with their lives? It was, I believed at the time, a youthful and immature act of rebellion against a changing world that seemed increasingly resistant to the privilege they had expected from their upbringing.
After I graduated from college and moved to Washington, I realized the embrace of the Indian symbol wasn't just about college kids' youthful immaturity. It was about the very human fear of change.
I've lived in 14 different cities in my life, attended three different high schools, and quickly embraced each city where I've moved. But even I have difficulty explaining my longstanding and irrational hatred toward the Boston Celtics and the Dallas Cowboys. It seems I had been holding onto baggage from my youth when no one in my family liked the Celtics' Larry Bird or the Cowboys' Roger Staubach. That was all there was to it.
But the reality is the world has changed since I was a kid — for the better. The NFL now has nine black quarterbacks. Gay men are finally coming out on the basketball court. And Cowboys and Indians movies aren't so popular anymore. Most importantly, we now have an African-American president who isn't afraid to speak up for LGBT equality or to question an offensive sports team name. That's progress. And it's sometimes slow, difficult, uncomfortable and scary. But it's necessary.
As a lifelong sports fan and former college athlete, I think sports teams and mascots should bring us together, not tear us apart. I know from experience that some fans will be upset if the Redskins change their name, but I also know that true fans won't abandon the team because of it. In fact, we may find that plenty of new fans begin to support the local team they've long been reluctant to embrace.
Keith Boykin is a New York Times best-selling author and former White House aide to President Clinton. He attended Harvard Law School with President Barack Obama and currently serves as a TV political commentator. He writes commentary for BET.com each week.
The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.
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