Racist American Pro Sports Team Names

23:58 Thu 04 Nov 2010. Updated: 15:53 13 Oct 2013
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I’m perennially surprised at the names of the Washington Redskins and the Cleveland Indians, which are outrageous and somehow still haven’t changed.

I wondered which of the teams had the more racist name, and whether or not they were the most racist pro sports names in the US.

I’m excluding college-level teams, minor-league teams, Canadian teams, and teams outside the NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL, and MLS.

I’m going by name alone, and not considering mascots, logos, or promotional material.

I’m not claiming any authority on this matter. This is my entirely subjective take on the relative racism of the names. I don’t have strong feelings about any of these teams (except the honorable mention). I’m also not Native American.

The names are racist because they’re patronizing and dismissive. To use the name of a people this way is a clear cultural indicator that their identity is not to be taken seriously. It matters what the power relations are: a team called the White Anglo-Saxon Protestants might also have a racist name, but the impact of that would be less significant in this cultural climate.

Honorable Mention: The New York Yankees

This name kept standing out. “Yankee” is an often-pejorative term, used to describe people from a specific (if malleable) geographic location. I’ve been called a “yank” pejoratively, both in good fun by friends and otherwise. The team’s usage of it could be considered a proud reclaiming of the term, if you even wanted to take the matter that seriously.

Sliding By: Kansas City Chiefs

Though it refers to “indian chief”, I’m not certain the name is racist. “Chief” could be compared here to “Kings”. This may be a name with a racist legacy rather than being racist in itself.

Dodgy Territory: Chicago Blackhawks

Tricky. The team is named after the US Army Division. Naming one of your divisions after a subjugated foe is a clear act of appropriation; naming a team after the division is murkier. The Chicago Blackhawks try hard to clarify, using the stylized face of a Native American as their logo (the infantry division’s logo is a black hawk). This name is ambiguous at best.

Almost a Contender: Atlanta Braves

Unlike “chief”, “brave” has a specific racial component. But, with some reference to a role, it’s not quite as racist as the top two.

So Close: Cleveland Indians

Less pejorative than its rival, barely. Edged out because you could perhaps find ways to look at it so it wasn’t horrifyingly insulting.

Unconscionable: Washington Redskins

Horrifyingly insulting. Does anyone use the term “redskin” anymore? With “Indian”, someone might not know “Native American” is the preferred term, but “redskin”? Congratulations, Washington: your football team has the most racist name in major US pro sports.

This doesn’t make the team or the fans racist—it just means the name is racist.

If you let the Chiefs and Blackhawks slide, that’s three teams. Changing the names of just three teams would alter the cultural discussion about Native Americans, removing from common usage terms that enforce their status as a subjugated group. It’s hardly most important race issue out there, but it’s both a no-brainer and low-hanging fruit.

8 Responses to “Racist American Pro Sports Team Names”

  1. Zac Says:

    Don’t forget the Vancouver Canucks. I know you said you were excluding Canadian teams, but they are NHL, and in North America. A mild pejorative at worst, and self referential, so it is hard to criticize. I may be going way out on a limb, but The Minnesota Vikings might offend the overly sensitive. Just because they weren’t persecuted, doesn’t mean it isn’t an ethnic target. Then again, Norwegians oft poke fun at themselves – especially in Minnesota (Garrison Keillor?) If you want to go way out, Green Bay Packers is an oblique reference to the Indian Packing Co. So you get that racial/socioeconomic double zing.

  2. Tadhg Says:

    Not including the Vikings was absolutely an oversight, and perhaps a telling one—I’ve never heard of anti-viking prejudice, and so I just didn’t register it as a name in that category even though it clearly is. Once you take the cultural context away, it’s more or less the same as the Braves. Does that make it racist? Possibly, but in a way that’s almost certainly harmless in the current climate. I think. “Harmless racism” is a tough concept to accept.

    I’d put the Canucks up there with the Yankees, but if I were to include Canadian teams, the Edmonton Eskimos would be right there with the Cleveland Indians.

  3. lusciousblopster Says:

    ah i remember in the New Haven Register reading about the East Haven Police Department who:
    \Sometime in 1997 an unofficial department softball team wore t-shirts depicting police officers holding suspects on the hood of a police car which contained the words, “Boyz n the Hood”. \
    I think there was a photo of said t-shirt accompanying the article. Now that’s racism.
    And in 1997 the EHPD shot Malik Jones. Was still rightly a major story throughout the early 2000s.

  4. Damien Says:

    I think the redskins is a racist name too. Some people may think it’s not but think of it in this way. There is a team called the black skins and there mascot or symbol is a African

  5. M Says:

    Okay, so … you get the “racist sports names” thing, but .. you think anti-rape activists, and actual rape survivors, owe PA an apology?

    I’m going to guess you missed this

    “Mike posted on Penny-Arcade that his wife and child had been threatened, which is reprehensible. No excuses can be made for it. But he uses language like “them,” which is a time-honored way of declaring “the other side that happens to be wrong,” and he equates the people upset about the rape joke with the people verbally taunting them, which is, in my opinion, ugly and dishonest.”


    I’m sure you’re going to – and I’ve read that you already have done – cover your opinion in “mine is the only logical, rational” way to look at this, blah blah blah.

    So interesting that it was the hysterical “No, you can’t crush freedom of speech NO YOU CAN’T TELL ME WHAT TO DO” types making death threats that were clearly overreacting about a comic, hahaha — and yet its the others who were traumatized and terrorized that are habitually deemed “hysterical” and “irrational”.

    And from a tennis fan? *smh*

    Trying a little levity here, as we wait for Indian Wells, but I have to admit I’m deeply, deeply disappointed.

    I am not, however, surprised.

  6. Tadhg Says:

    M: I certainly think PA owe a lot of people an apology, and that they now have done by far the bulk of the stupid and insensitive things in this controversy.

    But, I still think that the original strip is fine, and that this fact should not be overlooked entirely when considering the whole thing.

    Mike is clearly wrong in the quotation you cite, and was wrong before that, too; I think the T-shirts crossed the line badly.

    I’m sorry if my attempts to deal with this as logically and rationally as I know how seem to you like tired repetitions of a trope that has been played out many times before. I can see where you’re coming from with that, to be honest, and I’m not exactly comfortable with my position. But it is still the position I hold, because it’s what seems right to me after my thinking it through pretty carefully.

    I had previously read that IGN post, incidentally, and agree with a lot of it. The author and I diverge on where we think PA crossed the line, and I’m probably a more committed defender of the original strip. But I’m not defending the behavior from Mike you cite, or the #teamrape assholes.

    Out of curiosity, what conclusion would you have liked me to reach? That the original strip was wrong after all, or that Penny Arcade’s later actions push them so far beyond the pale that the wrongness of the original critique has been made irrelevant?

  7. Apx Says:

    What about the Boston Celtics?

  8. Tadhg Says:

    Apx: I missed them too; they’re pretty similar to the Minnesota Vikings in terms of how racist the name is.

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