During the past decade, few writers have bashed Native-American sports nicknames as vehemently as I have. I hate that the Redskins are called the Redskins. I despise that the Blackhawks are called the Blackhawks. I find the Tomahawk Chop absolutely disgraceful, and thought long ago that Chief Illiniwek belonged in a crypt along with minstrel figurines and Aunt Jemima outfits. Every time I hear some boob with a feather logo on his hat explain, "We're honoring the tradition," I want to throw up.
"Honoring the tradition" might entail the white man giving back North America, but it sure as hell doesn't mean:
AP Photo/Seth Perlman
Think Native Americans are fond of this kind of thing?
B) Mock chants of "Waaaaa-hoooooo! Waaaaa-hoooooo!"
C) Jason Campbell to Santana Moss TOUCHDOWN!
It's been 10 years since I penned my first piece on the subject for Sports Illustrated, and in the ensuing time my opinions have only grown stronger. In short, I believe Native-American nicknames are offensive, wrongheaded and embarrassing.
And, in short, I am a fool.
A big one.
Throughout the years of my mounting anger, I never took aim at the place that should disgust me most of all; the place where I know firsthand that a lazy, unnecessary Native-American-inspired moniker is not merely offensive, but downright damaging.
I never took aim at Mahopac (N.Y.) High School -- home of the Indians.
My alma mater.
What can I say? I have a great deal of affection for ol' Mahopac High, the place where I met some of my closest lifelong friends, escorted a cutie named Jody Cohen to the prom and served as sports editor of the (egad) Chieftain. Heck, I was a proud Indian myself -- a varsity-letter winner in track and cross country who wore the blue and gold "Tribe" uniform without complaint.
When some kid would dress up as a Native American at homecoming, I would cheer. When we needed a football headline for the school paper, TRIBE SCALPS CARMEL! never garnered the slightest objection from me. When the Indian-head logo was plastered upon everything from signs to billboards to letterhead, I pondered it for nary a second.
Again, I am a fool.
Think about it. Really, really think about it. What sends a more profound nod to the intricacies of intolerance than telling cranial-developing teenagers, "Hey, we could be the Stars or Jets or Cobras -- but we'd rather 'honor' a misidentified race of people with goofy logos, inane lingo and the occasional halftime tribal dance/ode to MC Hammer on crack?" It leads to the oft-asked question that I've never heard properly answered: If it's OK to be the Indians, why not be the Fightin' Negroes? Or the Heebs? Or the Chinks?
Heck, the word "Indian" is as inappropriate as any other -- an erroneous tag slapped upon a group of people merely because Christopher Columbus thought he had landed in the Indies (meaning all of south and east Asia), not North America.
The other day I spoke with Frank Miele, the Mahopac High School athletic director and one of New York State's legendary prep baseball coaches. In his 35 years at the school, Miele said he's been approached about changing the name "not one time. People here are proud of what it represents. They view it as an important tradition."
Miele meant this as a compliment to a close-knit town.
I see it as an indictment.
When I was at Mahopac, nobody -- absolutely nobody -- seemed concerned with "honoring" the town's past. The origin of "Mahopac" was never taught in classes; never discussed in lectures or cafeteria assemblies. Located 60 miles north of Manhattan, Mahopac was settled by the Wappini Indians, an Algonquin tribe. Yet if our Native-American heritage arose, it was only in the context of a joke that passed from one resident to another like a bad case of the stomach flu:
Biff: Did you hear how Mahopac got its name?
Jim: No. How?
Biff: Two Indians are on a boat. The first Indian pulls out a pack of cigarettes and accidentally drops them into the water. The second Indian says, "Wow. How many did you have in there?" The first Indian replies glumly, "My whole pack."
I loved Mahopac. Truly, truly loved it. I loved Mr. Miele -- a truly honorable man. I loved riding my bike up and down Emerald Lane. I loved walking 1.5 miles to town, buying five Tootsie Roll Pops at Rodak's Deli and spending the next 20 minutes eating them. I loved tubing on Lake Mahopac. I loved the annual Volunteer Fire Department fair. I loved night tag in the Millers' backyard, and hourless pickup hoops with the Ballerini brothers.
But I also saw the darker side of my hometown -- a gritty, blue-collar Manhattan suburb with a predominantly Irish-American and Italian-American makeup. I still remember the kids who threw pennies at my brother and I because we were Jews; still remember the two crosses that were set aflame in my African-American friend's yard; still remember my eighth-grade teacher instructing us on how "blacks can't ski -- they just can't." Mostly, I remember the n-word being dropped left and right without punishment. "I love Whitney Houston," my across-the-way neighbor once told me, "but I hate the color of her skin."
A couple of years ago, nearby Ossining High School took the initiative of shedding its Native American-themed moniker and replacing it with -- well, umm, people still aren't sure what to call the school's teams. "It didn't go over too well," says Miele. "More than anything, I believe it divided their community. We don't want that here."
To many in Ossining, the move was a slap in the face of tradition, of honor, of heroism.
Oddly, not one complaint came from a Native American.
Righteousness, after all, is often silent.
Jeff Pearlman is a former Sports Illustrated senior writer and the author of "Love Me, Hate Me: Barry Bonds and the Making of an Antihero," now available in paperback. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.