CHICAGO - Is it hypocritical to be OK with the Chicago Blackhawks' decision to keep their nickname and also laud the Cleveland Indians for potentially ditching theirs?
I'll hang up and listen for my answer.
After years of debating whether the NFL Washington team should change its nickname, the NFL team's decision to hold a "thorough review" has spurred other sports organizations with questionable nicknames to contemplate doing likewise.
The Cleveland baseball team has started discussions as well, with manager Terry Francona supporting a change.
"In the past, when I've been asked about it, whether it's our name or the Chief Wahoo (logo), I would usually say I know that we're never trying to be disrespectful," Francona said. "And I still feel that way. But I don't think that's a good enough answer today. It's time to move forward. It's a very difficult subject. It's also delicate."
It was only a matter of time before the Blackhawks came up in the discussion. Before the issue got any traction, the Hawks preemptively released a statement Tuesday night saying they don't plan to change because the "name and logo symbolizes an important and historic person, Black Hawk of Illinois' Sac & Fox Nation, whose leadership and life has inspired generations of Native Americans, veterans and the public."
The statement explained the Hawks are celebrating the "legacy" of Black Hawk while understanding some might not agree with the decision.
"We recognize there is a fine line between respect and disrespect," it said. "And we commend other teams for their willingness to engage in that conversation. Moving forward, we are committed to raising the bar even higher to expand awareness of Black Hawk and the important contributions of all Native American people."
That seemed like a logical explanation to me, but maybe I'm biased because of a lifetime of following the team. And because I'm not Native American, I don't know how offended they are by the name.
It would've been easy just to shorten the name to Hawks and change the logo to a bird.
But would that be necessary if the name isn't offensive to the majority of Native Americans? And would team Chairman Rocky Wirtz just be following in lockstep with the owners of Washington's NFL team and Cleveland's baseball team because it would be easier than having to defend the name?
Changing names is always tricky and often necessary, and many colleges (such as Stanford) and high schools have gone away from Native American names and imagery because it was the right thing to do.
In 1996, the NBA's Washington Bullets changed their name at the direction of owner Abe Pollin. When the Chicago Packers moved to Baltimore in 1963 and changed the nickname to Bullets, Pollin said it was meant to suggest they were "faster than a speeding bullet."
There was no negative connotation, and apparently no one thought twice about it.
But rampant gun violence in Baltimore led Pollin to his own reckoning. He explained in '96: "I picked up a newspaper and saw the word 'bullets' in a headline and thought for an instant that the article was about my basketball team. ... I looked and they were talking about somebody killing somebody."
Pollin said he became more determined when he came back from the funeral of his friend, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was shot to death.
Late Bullets vice president Wes Unseld, the MVP of the 1978 championship team, told the Tribune in '96: "I regret we're in a situation where the name does have some connotation toward violence. I take a lot of pride in being called one of the Bullets, but I understand the reasoning. ... It needs to be done."
The Bullets conducted a contest to change the name, with center Juwan Howard on the committee that selected five names from more than 300,000 submissions. The Wizards won out over the Express, Dragons, Stallions and Sea Dogs, and now an entire generation of Wizards fans exists with little or no care about their former name.
We're at a moment in time in which questions are being asked about many things in sports, from nicknames to statues to awards.
The Baseball Writers' Association of America is discussing dropping the names of Kenesaw Mountain Landis from the most valuable player awards and J.G. Taylor Spink from the award that annually honors a writer. Both reportedly were opposed to the integration of baseball, and some BBWAA members feel Landis and Spink don't deserve to be associated with the writers organization. (Disclaimer: As BBWAA president, I approved the decision to discuss the removal of the names.)
In his argument for the removal of Landis' name, veteran baseball writer Ken Rosenthal wrote: "In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, the entire country is listening on matters of racial injustice with seemingly greater intent than in the past. Now, with several past most valuable players saying they are uncomfortable with Kenesaw Mountain Landis' name on their awards, it's time that we, the Baseball Writers' Association of America, listen too."
The need to listen to those who are offended seems obvious. Sometimes, naturally, people can go overboard. One sports writer recently called for a name change for the Masters, suggesting it made people think of slavery instead of its intended reference as a tournament for the "masters of golf." Seems a bit of a stretch.
I don't know if Native Americans will accept the Blackhawks' explanation for their decision, and perhaps real debate over the nickname is just beginning. We can't really judge that fine line between respect and disrespect if we're not the ones feeling disrespected.
But at least the conversation has started, and for that the team should be applauded.
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