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posted: 5/22/2014 10:07 AM

Blackhawks should lead out on mascot change

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  • John Mehrtens

    John Mehrtens

By John Mehrtens

The controversy surrounding NBA owner Donald Sterling has reignited a discussion of racism in American sports, which, these days, inevitably links to the debate over the name and mascot of the NFL's Washington Redskins.

Other professional franchises with Native American monikers, such as the Atlanta Braves, Cleveland Indians and our Chicago Blackhawks, have thus far escaped significant criticism. However, the Blackhawks' current playoff run provides an opportunity to assess the appropriateness of the logo.

The Washington NFL team will no longer be called the Redskins at some point (three to five years is my guess) because changing it is the right thing to do. The president has publicly supported a change. The media are not going to drop the issue. And at some point NFL players, many of whom have experienced racism, will likely take up the cause.

When the Redskins change, pressure will shift to teams like the Braves, Indians and Blackhawks.

Chicago has a proud history as a progressive city, so I've been surprised to discover just how much old-school racism still lurks below the surface. But the city, the Blackhawks and their fans have an opportunity to do be trendsetters. Will the Blackhawks' mascot be changed willingly, because it's morally proper, or will it happen only after a prolonged public dispute?

The standard defenses of the use of Native American mascots are that they're "tradition" and that they're not intended to offend (indeed some claim they honor Native Americans).

The first of those defenses is just plain weak -- many "traditions" have been discarded because they were no longer consistent with our values. This would include various forms of discrimination, including a "tradition" directly related to this discussion -- the ban on minorities in professional sports.

The second of those defenses is trickier, but just as feeble. Just because one isn't intentionally offensive doesn't mean one isn't offensive. Instead, many people don't see their views as racist because they can't understand the impact on others. Think of it this way: the basic message being sent to Native Americans is that we stole your land and pushed you to the point of invisibility through one of the most successful genocides in human history, but we reserve the right to use cartoon images of your people to entertain ourselves. In what universe is that not offensive?

But the larger point is that it isn't for predominantly white, middle/upper-class audiences to determine whether Native Americans are offended by sports logos -- that's their right. And even if 80 percent of Native Americans accept the use of such mascots, the other 20 percent matter. It's not just that they are "overly sensitive," as many whites like to complain. They have a right to be offended, and the fact that they are renders our mascots insulting, degrading and racist.

Changing the mascot would be a smart business decision. In addition to the positive national press it would generate, merchandising revenue would certainly spike for a couple of years. And would any Chicagoan really stop supporting Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and the rest of the squad if they had a different picture on their jerseys?

So which is it, Blackhawks fans? Do you have the empathy and foresight to be ahead of the curve, or will you be dragged into the 21st century kicking and screaming?

• John Mehrtens is an assistant professor of political science at Aurora University.

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