Why Racism in Sports Matters


For the record I am not a Native American, in the indigenous, original people living on the land before the arrival of the Europeans sense. I am a native American in the sense that I was born in the United States of America, have lived all my life as an American citizen, raised my family here and worked here. I am of European ancestry so I can be classified as “white” or “Caucasian” on race based questions. I am involved in the Native American sports’ teams’ name/mascots issue. In 1999 I filed a lawsuit against the Cleveland municipal stadium and the Major League Baseball team in Cleveland, the “Cleveland Indians” under Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in papers submitted to the Ohio Civil Rights Commission.

The charge was that in the Cleveland stadium, now Progressive Field, then Jacobs Field, a place of public accommodation I, a non-“Indian,” was denied full enjoyment of the facility because of the presence of the historically hostile name, “Indians” and demeaning, degrading, dehumanizing logo “Chief Wahoo” on the field and through the facility. Because I understood the historical context in which the naming of the indigenous people as “Indians” arose it was clear evidence to me of racism perpetuated across centuries, through deliberately inaccurate teaching and media based propaganda. I argued that one need not be of the discriminated against race to find the racism unacceptably hostile and aggressively intimidating.

At the time the logo was also on team uniforms. The ridiculous and demeaning racist nature of the caricature was self-evident. Case law indicated the charges would be denied, as they were. Initially the plans had been to move into federal court. However a US Supreme Court case was handed down while my case was pending that could have been used to seriously undermine all federal civil rights laws because of the local nature of civil rights violations. The case was not directly on point but it could have been a precedent, turning back civil rights laws to state legislatures, setting human rights in America back decades. That was a risk I was unwilling to take.

In the intervening years I have not changed my position—both the team name and the logo have to be changed, to remove the blatant racism from the game I was raised to love as America’s pastime. Often I am asked why I, a “white woman” care, why I don’t “move on” and a whole host of less polite questions, from all sides of the discussion.

I stay with the issue because it is unresolved. I stay with the issue because it is important, I stay with the issue because I respect all people. I stay with the issue because as a woman I am a member of the most discriminated class of people throughout history and in the world today and know discrimination harms everyone. I stay with the issue because I understand Niemoller who wrote, after WWII and in reference to the Jewish experience in Germany during the war:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me–and there was no one left to speak for me.

This can be and has been applied to every minority group of people who are targeted by the majority population or exploited by the group in the position of dominant power. Before I began my work on Native American issues, before I had a family to raise I spent some years working in an operating room in Cleveland. There I came to understand directly that we are all one race, the human race. I know for an absolute fact that inside we all look the same. When people are sick, worried, afraid or happy, then too, all those times, we also look quite a bit alike, outside, too.

Our common humanity should draw us together to stop exploitation based on any inborn identity, certainly on exploitation based on race, in such a highly visible sport. Baseball is a worldwide game, MLB is now playing regularly in countries with prominent indigenous populations, and modern tech takes every game out into the world throughout the season.

Do we fans of baseball, people proud to be American, wherever we came from, truly believe this is showing America as it is today, as it can be when we are at our best? Will this blatant exploitation help American businesses in countries around the world, give credence to America’s diplomats when they argue for a morally and ethically right decision on human rights in the world’s conflict areas, or give dignity to everyone living within our borders today?

It is time to change the team name and logo in Cleveland and time to address this issue across all of MLB and all American sports. I have asked each MLB team owner individually to step up, come together and do together what they seem unable to do individually—change the Cleveland team name and logo, address the issue with all their teams.

baseball mit bat

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