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.]