McGowan: Woke Sports Names

February 10, 2021

by Richard McGowan, Ph.

Consider the names of these teams: Florida State University Seminoles, Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Cleveland Indians. How are they the same and how are they different? 

Florida State University managed to avoid the problem of illicit cultural appropriation by working with the Seminole Tribe of Florida. The FSU Communications Office acknowledges the nature of the arrangement on its website:

“Since 1947, Florida State University has proudly identified itself with this heroic tribe. The name ‘Florida State Seminoles’ was selected by vote of the university’s student body in 1947, shortly after FSU became a coeducational institution and re-established a football team. The name was selected specifically to honor the indomitable spirit of Florida Seminoles — those people whom the Seminole Tribe of Florida refers to as the ‘few hundred unconquered Seminole men, women, and children left — all hiding in swamps and Everglades of South Florida.’ FSU’s use of the name honors the strength and bravery of these people, who never surrendered and ultimately persevered.”

FSU’s team name, Seminoles, “honors’ a ‘heroic tribe.’” And as a consequence, few people protest FSU in “woke” demonstrations and riots.

But what about “The Fighting Irish”?

An easy case could be made that the Notre Dame teams present an ethnic slur. The mascot for Notre Dame is a pugilistic leprechaun, drawn from Irish mythology. If that is not cultural insensitivity, nothing is.

As well, Notre Dame’s mascot, a leprechaun is male. There are no female leprechauns. Does Notre Dame understand inclusion and diversity?

Finally, did Notre Dame consult people with an Irish heritage? If not, Notre Dame is guilty of cultural appropriation. I do not think cultural appropriation is always bad, for instance, when America co-opted Groundhog Day from Germans. However, the Woke generation appears to condemn any and all representations of other cultures. That attitude ignores the fact that in 1776, America did not have a culture. It had many different groups contributing to its customs and practices. For instance, the tradition of carving pumpkins at Halloween derives from Irish customs. And nobody seems to mind.

Research on “The Fighting Irish” suggests several accounts of the nickname’s origin. The school first played under different names, the “Catholics” in the 1800s and then, in the 1920s, the “Ramblers.” In 1927, Notre Dame teams became the “Fighting Irish.” Some say the nickname refers to Irish immigrants who fought for the Union in the Civil War. The Irish Brigade included several regiments from New York whose bravery was proclaimed in the poetry of Joyce Kilmer and admired by Robert E. Lee. The famous Paul Wood painting, “Absolution Under Fire,” depicts Irish soldiers kneeling, prior to battle, before army chaplain Father William Corby, a subsequent Notre Dame president.

Another account attributes the nickname’s origin to Northwestern University’s abusive taunts in 1899. Notre Dame led Northwestern 5-0 when the Wildcats chanted, “Kill the Fighting Irish, kill the fighting Irish.” 

Other accounts exist but the one that resonates most relies on an event from May 1924 when Notre Dame students took on anti-Catholic Ku Klux Klan demonstrators in South Bend. The weekend of clashes contributed to a loss of influence and power for Indiana’s KKK.

Far from a slur, then, “The Fighting Irish” is an honorific, no matter which account is the most historically grounded and accurate.

What about the Cleveland Indians? The Cleveland Plain Dealer editorialized on Jan. 18, 1915, that “Many years ago there was an Indian named Sockalexis who was the star player of the Cleveland baseball club. As a batter, fielder and base runner he was a marvel. Sockalexis so outshone his teammates that he naturally came to be regarded as the whole team. The fans throughout the country began to call the Clevelanders ‘the Indians.’ It was an honorable name, and while it stuck the team made an excellent record. It has now been decided to revive this name.” The Society of Baseball Researchers corroborates that account: “Team owner Charles Somers, after consulting with several local sportswriters, decided to revive the name that had defined the city’s National League club 18 years before. Somers, perhaps recalling the all-too-brief period of excitement that Louis Sockalexis had brought to Cleveland in 1897, dubbed the team the Indians.”

Somers’ reasoning followed the pattern established by the previous name, the Naps. The baseball team was the Cleveland Bronchos in 1902, but after a season watching the great Hall of Fame ballplayer, Napoleon Lajoie, on the field, the club became the Naps. When he left the club in 1914, the team needed a new name, thus, the Indians, named in honor of a single player.

Other explanations discount that the Indians were named in large measure to honor Sockalexis, the first Native American to play major league baseball. They cannot accept that a team would name itself after a Native American. How “woke” is that?

Richard McGowan, Ph.D., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, has taught philosophy and ethics cores for more than 40 years, most recently at Butler University, home of the “Bulldogs.”


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