The LOGOS (Inner Logic) of Sports Logos (#3)

The LOGOS (Inner Logic) of Sports Logos

The logo is a quirky beast
some love the most, some think the least.
No matter whether west or east,
bring the heart to cap the feast….

In the news recently, the Washington Redskins are reaching out to Native Americans, today the Navaho & Zuni. The team’s providing free tickets & a tailgate party for the Zuni, and sponsoring an arts project for the Navaho. News footage shows Native Americans calling the Redskins “our team.”

Whether successfully or not, they are trying to tap the potential for native identification, if only to buffer the attack son their logo from those who consider the name & logo offensive. There ought to be some potential for doing so—just imagine who you would root for if you were Native American, especially against the Cowboys. Clearly, team management wants to turn around what’s been a strong surge in public opinion against the Redskin name—with political pressure brought to bear through the government’s attempt to revoke the Redskin’s trademark.

With some embarrassment, I admit having initially gone along with the public sentiment against the logo, assuming that the slang reference was offensive in itself. The term “redskin” does have some strongly negative associations from various examples of derogatory use. Think cavalry officers, wagon train members & settlers on the frontier, along with the films portraying frontier life.

But is there anything inherently negative in the term itself? Okay, that’s a trick question, at least too tricky for any clear answer. On the one hand, there’s nothing inherently negative in calling people white, pale-skinned, brown, or blacks. On the other hand, negativity is always a function of use, tonally reflecting the user’s attitude, and there’s something potentially offensive in the labeling of a group other than one’s own.

And there’s the rub, because such associations & attitudes have their own meaning in the sports context. The bonding & affection felt for a favorite team goes with the territory, whatever its called–Blue Jays, Tigers, Pirates, Giants, Red Sox, Indians…..  So does the feeling one has for rival teams–most often a kind of ‘play-hostility,” shaking one’s fist at them, yet smiling. Except where the atmosphere is corrupted by hooliganism, fierceness of the on-field competition is balanced by the sense of sportsmanship after.

I may claim to “hate the Yankees,” but it’s a happy hate, after all, with good will, with love of the game deeper in. The enmity, no matter how passionate, is an attenuated version, not the same as what people in violent conflict tend to feel, where loved ones are hurt or  threatened. The positive emotion felt for “one’s own team” seems closer, on the other hand;  although still attenuated, some of the same chemicals, like oxytocin, are involved.

Here’s an interesting twist, however. I don’t believe that the “negativity” one may feel  towards rival sports teams tends to carry over from team logos to real-life correspondents.  You can root for the Patriots to beat the Redskins (or vice versa) without carrying the sense of that rivalry over to actual historical patriots or tribes. How you feel about the Patriots probably doesn’t change how you feel about Paul Revere, Patrick Henry or George Washington. The same is not necessarily so in the other direction, however.

In the case of the Redskins or Indians, I suspect rivals transfer little if any negativity toward real-world correspondences, any more than they do with Padres, Tigers, Giants, Twins, Braves, Jazz, or Warriors. I believe fans of Redskins, Indians, and Braves are much more likely, however, to transfer some of their positive association to real-world groups, including a general sense of group-kinship and group-affection (i.e., positive associations).

I learned the positive side of such identification first-hand in my boyhood as an “Indian,” wearing (& loving) that grinning logo for two years in Little League baseball. Later on, I more or less understood intellectually why others found the caricature offensive, while noting that it evoked nothing in me personally but warmth & affection, for Native Americans as well as for logo & team.

Still, there’s no denying that the grinning Indian of the logo has some characteristics in common with WWII American propaganda portrayals of maniac Japanese kamikaze pilots & Nazi caricatures of Jews. They are all caricatures, after all, grossly exaggerating generic features for dramatic or humorous effect. Out of context, they might not seem that different, yet this seeming similarity is entirely superficial.

Unlike the propaganda posters, the grinning logo is not a racist caricature. A caricature  can be positive as well as negative, evoking affectionate humor rather than fear, disgust and loathing, as show-biz portraits by any admired sketch artist may attest. Or logos. There’s a fundamental difference in how a caricature is used, in other words. Is it used to evoke loathing for “the other” or affection for “one’s own”? When it is used for “one’s own team,” it becomes too positive an identification to mean anything negative, let alone racist.

The twists keep on coming, however, because some indigenous tribe members may well feel that Indian fans, team & players don’t, in fact, have the right to appropriate the association or membership, no matter how positive it makes them feel. Who gave us the right to make ourselves “honorary Indians,” even symbolically?

The intricacies of trademark & logo law are no doubt far beyond the current scope. Judges, lawyers, linguists, and other scholars may argue the differences between Braves, Indians and Redskins, and compare these to Pirates, Padres, Mariners, & Raiders.

How about the Shtetl Rabbis, or the Long Island Jews? Presumably, it depends. Either would be considered positive with Adam Sandler singing its anthem, or significant Jewish engagement. Without actual Jewish team members, it could still be positive–or not, depending on the team attitude toward its own logo.

Let’s face it, a little humor can go a long way, even further for groups that have known serious persecution, where in-group humor is usually part of the healing. Just ask Black comics, Latino comics, women comics, fat comics, nerdy comics, as well as Jewish comics. Sometimes, you have to lighten up in order to heal. (Or in some cases, light up.)

Of course you need to feel something related to these are my totem-people to root for such a team. This core feature makes them radically different from racist use of similar iconography. The Nazis were not about to root for a team with Jewish identity, even one represented by a caricature. Similarly, no one on the American side was rooting for the Kamikaze pilots.

Responding to the negative propaganda use of a caricature feels nothing like the response to a positive use in the logo for a team. The uses (& responses) are night & day apart. There’s a world of difference, 180 degrees at least, between “those dirty Redskins” & “our noble Redskins.” Not that a logo has to be noble. Many start out neutral, developing associations of affection or rivalry from their context, like Orioles, Cardinals, or Mariners.

Many start as totemic symbols representing entities of power, like the Lions, Tigers, Bears,  & Diamondbacks, as well as Giants, Warriors, & Pirates. Other take on potentially totemic associations from use, e.g., the Banana Slugs, Ducks or Cubs. With a good spirit, you can name your team anything—from the Ferrets & Weasels, to the Prairie Chickens, Mongrels & Mishugunah Maniacs.

As long as there’s good-natured humor, your logo can go a long way. Good nature is one thing; humor is another. Put them together, you have a winning combination, or at least a more or less happy one. Just ask the Mishuganahs–but maybe not the Memphis Maggots, Kafka City Cockroaches or any prison team named Forensic Unit Rule-Ball-&-Neck-Breakers. 

All kidding aside, meaning is & isn’t just “in the eye of the beholder.” Sometimes it’s mainly in the tone of voice, intent & actual attitude of the user. Sometimes it’s a finger in the eye of the beholder. We shouldn’t rush to a negative opinion, however, where the use is emphatically positive, & deeply affectionate. On the other hand, that puts some responsibility on the users—not just to be positive unto themselves, but to share their good will with the groups from which they’ve drawn positive associations.

Maybe teams representing endangered species, like the Tigers & Panthers ought to support conservation efforts directed toward their totem species, for example. Even more important, when human groups are ostensibly represented, even just symbolically, teams like the Indians, Redskins, & Braves should be reaching out to include actual Native Americans in their fan-base. As long as they succeed in that, they ought to be able to keep their logos, & even their trademarks.

[Who the Pirates, Raiders,k Buccaneers & Mavericks reach out to is another matter.]

Why the Series, Calls & Sport Matter

III. Why it does & doesn’t matter

On one level, perhaps it turned out the questionable obstruction call didn’t matter, or mattered in the opposite direction from what we might more naively have expected, sapping something from the game-winner’s spirit by the nature of the “win,” while juicing the loser’s determination. As of last night, after all, we know the Red Sox won every subsequent game to take the series, rendering the obstruction call a box-score footnote.

And the win was beautiful to behold–Big Papi, young Bogaerts, Gomes in left, Victorino at the plate, Uehara on the mound to close out each 9th….The artistry of pitchers on both sides was a wonder, as was the ability of some batters to adapt. In Big Papi’s case, David Ortiz provoked the opposition to capitulate, being intentionally walked each of his last three at bats, tying the record. He finished the six-game series batting well over .600, on base almost 80% of the time. His heart & spirit seemed even bigger than his bat, however, having swelled at least partly in response to children injured in the Boston Marathon bombing.

After the game, Uehara’s haiku was apparently lost in translation, but his 5-year-old son’s was not: “Good. Strong,” he said to the mike in his face in response to two questions. The manager was eloquent in an elegantly understated way, concise, with respect for the worthy opposition. The general manager was grateful to “have been along for the ride.” Everyone credited everyone else, glad just to have helped.

Papi, his son by his side, went on a bit as MVP, however, unhurried, pure poetry rising between pauses mostly independent of the words, honoring his organization, his teammates, the fans, the city, while doing baseball & humanity both proud in a uniquely humble, open & heroic way. It was a high moment in baseball history, showing why baseball matters, why sport matters.

He had become for awhile, & now for all time, not just the perfect embodiment of a legendary “slugger,” but playing for something bigger than himself, a mythic presence on the base path heading home, thoroughly a team man & part of the whole. A fierce competitor, he nevertheless radiated good will to all, even players & coaches on the other side, setting a wonderful example partly by being so thoroughly just himself.

Then again the team set an even better example as a whole, with its diverse individuals working so well together. It reminded me of two impressions from my boyhood north of Boston. One was of ethnically territorial gangs, in conflict at the borders & in raids elsewhere. The other was baseball, where to a kid near the mid-1950s, ethnicities only enhanced a team by falling away, teams made that much more beautiful by diversities working well together.

With its various positions & diverse set of skills, baseball has a unique capacity to forge unity out of diversity, teamwork out of individual performance, doing so not by making participants the same, but by each player responding at once  individually & all together to each situation. Teamwork includes how players  react to each other’s errors or other failures also, which in most cases will be more than 2/3 of the time at the plate, while even golden glovers will bobble a ball once in a while. Perfection isn’t a realistic expectation, only trying one’s best, with hustle, focus & attention.

The manager’s job is no different, yet goes beyond to include choosing who to delegate what responsibilities to & directing tactical moves as the game develops. At the professional level, many manager styles are possible, though even the differences may vary tremendously in how they expressed in different situations. Nor will the manager always guess right in when to switch pitchers, or any other tactical aspect, being simply another player doing his best.

There are two schools of thought about “winning” & “playing the game” that actually work best as complements, & worst as opposites. The idea that “winning is all” degrades the game, stripping it of both aesthetic & ethical dimensions. The idea that “it’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game” ought not ignore the fact that a good part of how one plays the game is “with maximum effort to win,” a complement to playing with excellence.

Excellence wears many faces & takes many forms, including individual performance at the margin of the possible, grace under pressure, the spirit of comradeship within & across teams, love of the game. The game has its own aesthetics as well, including the framework provided by “organized baseball,” with responsibility for caretaking the evolving rules. Where flaws appear, it becomes necessary to tweak (but preferably not to jerk & twerk) the rules.

MLB did that a few years ago after an All-Star game ended in an unprecedented “draw,” when it became clear that the game needed to have some meaning, a consequence to winning or losig, and MLB responded by having the outcome determine which league would have the home team advantage in 4 of the 7-game inter-league world series (2 at home, 3 away, 2 at home until one team makes 4 wins). That was an aesthetically & ethically pleasing addition to the game as a whole, setting the stage for this year’s finish in iconic Fenway, with its green monster & other idiosyncratic quirks.

The series took on all the more meaning from the aftermath of the marathon bombing & subsequent community response. There may be a larger lesson here for policy makers & senior strategists, sometimes distorted by would-be provocateurs. The fact is that short of campaigns of total destruction, many, if not most, otherwise seemingly successful attacks do more to strengthen than to weaken the adversary. They can help create a unity & higher level of working together out of what had been otherwise conflicting elements, for example.

The more powerfully unsymmetrical, bullyish, unjust or cravenly terrorist the attack is perceived to have been, the more resolve to resist tends to be generated, the very opposite of capitulation. The “breaking point” may require not just overwhelming force, but its exercise for longer than all but the most locally committed tend to manage.

The body offers two obvious illustrations of how deeply such principles of resistance may be rooted. One is that toughening that takes place with repeated exercise, e.g., building a karate-punching edge. The other is the immune system reacting in response to a threat, turning the host hostile to that which has attacked it. The attack of a perceived invader can radically change the responsive host, in other words, soon strengthening what first seemed  weakened. The more virulent the attack, the sooner the attacker is either wiped out in the immune system’s counter-attack or loses its host by destroying it, presumably some inherent disadvantage to the organisms.

We are roaming far beyond sports here, into geopolitical & physiological dynamics, but that just emphasizes all the more how connected things are in a total ecology within which networks of all sorts are inherently symbiotic.