Monday, October 7, 2013

Capital Clubs with Capital Controversies

The debate about the use of the name "Washington Redskins" rages with NFL fans, politicians, and activist groups all wanting to have their voices heard. It's an issue that touches deep with many in this country and has become a flashpoint for the issue of Native American nicknames for professional, college, and even high school sports teams. But this type of debate is not exclusive to just the US, or the NFL. Over in England, fans of the club Tottenham Hotspur are now under fire for the use of the word "yid" to describe their fanbase, due to the words' negative and anti-Semitic origins. It has become the flashpoint debate of a larger one surrounding racism, homophobia, and antisemitism in football grounds. While these debates and controversies might seem disparate and irrelevant to each other, they've never been compared and analyzed together in a sports context to possibly find a solution that's mutually beneficial. While I don't personally feel qualified to talk about the issues on a religious and race level, on a sports level there is a discourse to be had about why these debates have been intensifying, despite existing on their own without public incident for long periods of time. Can comparisons be drawn, and can there be a solution in the gray area of both seemingly distant controversies?

First, some context is needed as to how the individual stories have progressed. The Redskins were originally named the Braves when they were based in Boston, and their first owner George Preston Marshall simply wanted to have some of Boston's baseball success carry over to his football team. They started playing at Braves Field with the same name as their baseball brethren, who weren't named after any Native Americans at all. They were named after street operatives of the early 20th century New York City political machine Tammany Hall, as the owners were NYC businessman whose money was made off of the machine. When the football team moved crosstown to Fenway Park, home of the Red Sox, Marshall combined the name of the Red Sox and Braves to form "Redskins", because he couldn't keep the Braves name at a rival park. So there was no racial intent in this name; just an easy way to change names to make money. If there was any racial intent, at the time it was (unfortunately) socially acceptable, so it went unnoticed. The name carried with the franchise when they later moved to Washington, and has stuck since.

The name "yid" has origins in the roots of Jewish culture, and comes essentially from the same root word that "Jew" comes from. In later context, the word in Yiddish meant as something akin to "chap" or "mate", with no explicit religious emphasis. One could say that the religious context was implied because the only people speaking Yiddish were Jews, but that's besides the point. Post World War II, the word was used by Jewish authors to illustrate either Antisemitism, or jokes Jews made among themselves. In a Tottenham context, in the early days of the club, a number of Jewish immigrants could easily get tickets to go from East to North London, where the club is located, and in order to better assimilate, they went to matches and became supporters as Jews in other parts of London did with clubs like Arsenal and Chelsea. The word was originally used as an insult from supporters of other clubs based on the religion of some fans, but gradually the word became accepted and used as a badge of pride by Spurs supporters, without the religious context. 

So to sum up those 2 paragraphs of exposition: The names, despite possible racist and antisemitic origins, have become badges of pride for the respective fanbases. They remain steadfast in their support of using the names in light of the controversies the respective sports as a whole are beginning to come to grips with, and in a sports context, they believe the words are not insulting. Are you beginning to see how the situations hit similar plot beats?

Sure there are differences, such as the fact that the Redskins name is an official nickname of the Washington team and "yid" is more a colloquial term, as well as the issue with Native American nicknames has been more logo based than name based, but they are similar enough that comparing them yields interesting conclusions. 

As a Tottenham supporter myself, I don't personally use the word "yid", because I've never found it appealing to say, when there are other chants that Spurs supporters use that I like more. However, I can fully understand why other Spurs fans use it, and use it as a term of endearment for themselves and players alike due to its roots in club history. I can also understand why many, including some Jewish Spurs supporters, would want the word to not be used even in a positive context, because of the antisemitic connotations.

Likewise, as someone who currently goes to school outside of Washington D.C., I can understand why some fans of the Washington Redskins would be angered by others trying to force a team name change, when they mean no racism. And I can also fully understand why activist groups, politicians, and Native Americans would want the name removed because of the racist connotations and history of other name changes. 

But ask yourself this:

So when Redskins fans collectively sing "Hail to the Redskins" after the team scores a touchdown, are they all racists for saying the name? In a similar vein, are all Tottenham supporters who chant "yid" or "yiddo" to players after they score all anti-Semites? Certainly not, because to many of these people, the names have absolutely no context in racism or antisemitism, since they've never been taught that the name has another meaning, for better or for worse. In a non-sports context, calling a Native American a "Redskin" and a Jew a "yid" would be grounds for prosecution for a hate crime, but in a sports context the words have completely different meanings, and no one is usually prosecuted for it (until recently in England). Since the English language has no official governing body, words can have their meanings changed and warped without warning, so what might have been considered offensive in the past can gain an entirely new meaning, and in a new era of political correctness and sensitivity to hate speech, the old contexts can be brought back up. 

When the issues of Native American nicknames in American sports are put up to the microscope, the Redskins name is not the only one left. The Cleveland Indians, Atlanta Braves (see above), the Florida State Seminoles (despite Seminole nation blessing), the Illinois Fighting Illini, and many many others are still around, but the battle is being waged on a larger scale dealing solely with the Redskins name, as is the current flashpoint. Are all these other names going to go away if the Redskins name does? Likewise, the antisemitism in football grounds doesn't stop with Tottenham fans saying "yid" as a positive term. It comes from groups of other supporters making hissing noises and making jokes about the Holocaust when their team plays Spurs, and there are documented instances of that. Can that be eradicated if Spurs fans stop chanting "yid"? 

The activists calling for the elimination of these 2 words have good intentions for sure, but are fighting a battle that goes much deeper only on a surface level. Racist sports team nicknames don't stop with the Redskins, but since that is the most public name of the ones left with the NFL's popularity, that is the battle being fought. With Tottenham, and football in general, antisemitism doesn't stop at the elimination of the word "yid", since some fans of other clubs will still chant antisemitic things towards Tottenham supporters because of the club's history and origins. Fighting an issue that has a lot of gray areas in a black-and-white context, along with fighting an issue with deep roots on a superficial level will not change anything or address what the real issues are here (just ask the North Dakota Fighting Sioux). Finally, looking at each name individually puts the situation in a vacuum, which doesn't help in finding a solution to the real problem at all; it's more like putting a band-aid on a broken leg. 

Are we eventually going to see the elimination of the words "Redskin" and "yid" from a sports context? Yes, since public pressure is eventually going to become too suffocating. Will the eliminating of those 2 words change anything in terms of the major underlying issues with the 2 words' existence at all? Probably not. Not every Redskin fan is a racist against Native Americans, as not all Tottenham fans who call themselves "yids" are antisemites. But trying to sweep everything all out at once on both sides of the pond really doesn't address why we are having these debates at all, and the words' eradication only scratches the surface on a much larger underlying problem that no one has yet been willing to even attempt to tackle effectively.

I'm not racist, nor antisemitic. I just want to tackle the deeper issues, not just flashpoints based on narratives. Good natured Redskins and Spurs supporters would want nothing less than that. But as long as other Native American names and logos still exist, and some fans of other clubs chant jokes about the Holocaust towards Spurs fans, then eliminating the two words has changed nothing, except inciting anger. Good natured intent only goes so far, especially when casting the affected parties as the instigators when they might not be. 

We all want to eliminate racism and antisemitism from sports, but eliminating 2 specific words can't do that, no matter the fight. 

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