Sports nicknames and race: does it still matter?

Are racist sports team nicknames as “racist” as they used to be?

Today is National Signing Day for college football. That means this is the first day that a high school senior can sign a binding National Letter of Intent for college football with a school that is a member of the NCAA, the main governing body for college sports in the United States (definition snagged from Wikipedia).

Y’all know I’m a big fan of the NFL, and sports in general. I love me some college football, but haven’t followed it very closely in the past few years. However, National Signing Day is always fun, because you see what schools are gearing up for a big title run two or three years from now, based on their incoming freshman class. This is a drama-filled day, and the result of years of recruiting by the best programs in the nation.

It’s also fun to see young men that have the opportunity to do something special: make a living playing football. National Signing Day is, in effect, the “coming out party” for high-level athletes that — thanks to a combination of hard work and genetics — may someday play in the NFL.

So there I was, reading up on today’s signings, and I saw an article that the University of Mississippi is racking up multiple coups, landing not only the consensus #1 recruit (defensive end Robert Nkemdiche), but also top-ranked offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil (pictured at right). Ole Miss landed more blue-chip recruits as well, and is suddenly a power to watch.

But it was a quote form Laremy that caught me off-guard. He said, “I want to be a Rebel.”

“The Rebels” (also bandied about as the “Running Rebels”) is the nickname of Ole Miss sports teams. Yes, as in, the rebels of the Confederacy, not the Rebels of Luke and Lei fame (if only we could be so lucky …). For decades, the university’s fans brandished the Confederate flag as a school symbol, and the university’s official mascot was known as “Colonel Reb” (pictured at right).

For those of you unfamiliar with this nickname, there he is on the right. And, yes, that is a caricature of a Southern plantation owner.

In 2010, Ole Miss changed its official mascot to the “Rebel Black Bear.”

This blog post isn’t about the history of Ole Miss. It’s about nicknames of sports teams in general, and the perceived racial implications of those names. Tunsil’s quote struck me because he didn’t say “I want to play for Ole Miss,” he said “I want to be a Rebel.” A young man with a world of potential doesn’t seem to be bothered by the history of that nickname — is that because the meaning of the nickname just isn’t the same?

There are still racially insensitive nicknames for sports teams, for sure. In particular, the Washington Redskins comes to mind. The mayor of DC is campaigning to change the name.

“Redskins” doesn’t have a positive connotation, I’ll grant you that. However, some college teams are named for specific American Indian tribes, in the context that the warriors of said tribe are tough, fierce and dedicated — qualities to aspire to for any athlete, particularly a violent sport like football. In that line of thought, nicknames using the names of American Indian tribes is complimentary and localized, akin to naming a team the Cowboys, the Patriots, the Packers, the Texans or (to get a little European indigenous population to balance the scales), the Vikings.

I grew up in Michigan. There were two college teams named after local Native American tribes: the Central Michigan Chippewas and the Eastern Michigan Hurons. At the height of the political correctness movement in the early 90s, Eastern’s board of regents changed the nickname to the “Eagles,” despite claims that the actual leaders of the Huron tribe support the use of the Huron name for athletics. Eastern changed, while CMU stayed pat (but did remove the Indian spear logo from their helmet).

Due to the GFL series, there is a lot of scifi/football on this site. I’ve tried to incorporate that localized nickname feel with teams like the Astronauts and the Hullwalkers.

So this is the question: if a black kid aspires to be a Rebel, does that nickname have the same meaning? Has Ole Miss successfully updated their existing nickname, keeping a part of their history and tradition while at the same time “re-branding” to be more inclusive? Should the opinion of the school nickname be based on old people, like myself or the board of regents at Eastern Michigan University, or should it be based on the opinion of the kids who actually attend the school?

What are your thoughts?

(And sorry, Washington fans, I’m afraid that as traditional as I am, “Redskins” needs to go).

Laremy Tunsil
I want to
be a Rebel

— Laremy Tunsil, signee for the University of Mississippi

Colonel Reb

From 1979 to 2003, “Colonel Reb” was the official mascot of the University of Mississippi athletic teams.

Rebel Black Bear

Rebel Black Bear,”
the mascot of Ole Miss
since 2010.


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  1. eddiejc1

    As a native Washington-area sports fan, you have no reason to apologize. I’m a lifelong fan of the Burgundy and Gold, but I agree with you—“Redskins” has to go. The hardest part for local fans is that even the fans who want the name changed find it impossible to think of the team other than “‘Skins” or “___skins.” Even the Washington City Paper which supports a name change thinks the team should be the “Pigskins.” No matter how you slice it, “Skins” is the most offensive part of the nickname and a reminder that the team was named after a racial slur.

    If it were up to me, I think the B&G should follow the example of Miami University. (I don’t mean the more famous University of MIami in Florida, but the similarly named university in Ohio.) For many years, Miami (Ohio)’s team was named the Redskins with the permission of the Miami tribe. When the Miamians told MU that they wanted the team to be named something else, the name was changed to “Redhawks.” It would take some getting used to, but “Redhawks” is at least more similar to “Redskins” than “Wizards” is to “Bullets.”

  2. Wesleyan_Hendrix

    Do “people” actually care about the names of these teams, or, is just a bunch of people who seriously need to get laid or something? How many of you have been watching any game and have been like “Damn those Redskins and their racist ass!”? You know we all have. Thats why those bastards using the dolphins the way the do in Miami should be stopped. They are setting unreal expectations of the way dolphins should look; what example are they setting for young impressionable dolphins?

  3. Z_Hunter

    I have this view of the world, people and buisness can do whatever they want. Now we have to be responsible enough to suport the ones that make the right decisions and not the ones that are making bad decisions. If people stopped buying Redskins merchandise and stop watching games because of their name they would change the name in a heart beat, but people support them as a buisness and therefore sanction them to continuing what they do.

    I agree with you that these names are horrible and should be gotten rid of, but I also think they have every right to name or keep whatever name they want, they just have to be ok with not getting my dollars if they do something I disagree with.

    So people you can make a difference, just remember every time you spend a dollar you are casting a vote, whether it is a vote for more awesome horror from Scott or to an offensive sports team, YOU give them the power to continue doing what they do.

  4. scottsigler

    @Z_Hunter: Agreed, to most people they are just nicknames that transcend any historical meaning. I’m certain that most Redskins fans don’t think about “the Indian problem.”

    But, there is still a problem if the people who are the source of the nickname are offended by that nickname, if they feel it belittles their culture and paints them as sub-human, that’s a different situation.

  5. scottsigler

    @SteveCameron: The Fighting Sioux is one that I think works. Historically, the Sioux were bad-ass fighters: why wouldn’t we want young men and women to aspire to be as strong as a Sioux warrior? On the surface, it sure looks like a compliment to the culture, as opposed to a perjoritive. However, I’m not part of the Sioux nation — in my opinion, it should be up to the tribe. If the tribal leadership thinks it’s cool, it’s cool. If the tribal leadership is offended, that’s a different story.

  6. Z_Hunter

    I don’t think people really sit around thinking these old maskots and nicknames are racist, to most its just the team name, these names have lost their venom and that is the ultimate win, like the old South Park episode where the kids design a flag that all the adults think is racist, only the kids don’t understand, why because they have no racism in their hearts.

    Also, most people don’t even know what some of these nicknames mean, Dave Dameshek surveyed players of the 49’ers and only 50% knew where the name 49’ers came from. So maybe my argument is that ignorance makes changing these iconic names unnecessary, God help us all.

  7. StevenCameron

    North Dakota just went through several years of war over the UND Fighting Sioux. The NCAA were going to sanction them if they didn’t drop the name and logo. The State of North Dakota were passing laws to force UND to keep the name. The millionaire who donated the money to build a stadium for them filled with symbols of the Fighting Sioux even said that he would stop funding the school.

    Finally, somebody made a decision to give it up and just play some damn football and stop wasting tax dollars on fighting the inevitable.

    Personally, I just looked at it as a name of a sports team, not a symbol implying that native americans were blood-thirsty warriors.