Several Nicknames Invite Changes, Not Cheers

"W elcome to today's game between the Baltimore Blackskins and the San Francisco Yellowmen. . . .

"And here come the Yellowmen onto the field, led by their famous cheerleaders, the Geisha Girls. . . .

"Before today's kickoff, we want to remind you that plenty of good seats still are available for next week's game against the New Jersey Fighting Jews. The Jews will be bringing their hilarious mascot, the Famous Rabbi, who will be performing during the game and at halftime. . . ."

Pretty disgusting, repugnant stuff, isn't it?

Well, imagine you are a Native American watching the Washington Redskins in the Super Bowl, or turning on ESPN for a Big East basketball game involving the St. John's Redmen.

Imagine listening to the Redskins' fight song, every time Washington scores a touchdown.

"Hail to the Redskins. Hail victory. Braves on the Warpath. Fight for old D.C."

Braves on the warpath? Is that how we think of American Indians in 1992?

Ask yourself these questions: If your skin color, race or religion were parodied in nicknames or mascots or team logos, wouldn't you be offended?

And how would you feel if you were an American Indian watching a Big Ten game involving the Illinois Fighting Illini?

A Native American activist group interrupted an Illinois-Minnesota basketball game, during Super Bowl week in Minneapolis, protesting Illinois' nickname. I hadn't thought about it before, but why does the Indian tribe, the Illini, have to be depicted as fighting?

Maybe your answer is another question. The Notre Dame Fighting Irish is politically correct, so why isn't the Illinois Fighting Illini?

The answer is simple. The Irish don't find the nickname offensive. But some American Indians, who in 1992 still are working for equality and trying to change stereotypes, are offended by the nickname Fighting Illini. That should be reason enough for Illinois to change.

In an effort to fight back against these unflattering depictions of American Indians, the Oregonian in Portland decided to not publish nicknames that refer to Indians.

No more Washington Redskins, St. John's Redmen, Atlanta Braves, Cleveland Indians, Florida State Seminoles.

Let's face it, this is a small step for mankind, considering Portland has no NFL or major-league baseball team. The Oregonian isn't going to bring the Redskins or Braves to their knees. But, at least the newspaper is sending a message to teams and schools.

It is especially disheartening to think that Illinois and St. John's, places of higher education, won't change. After listening to protesters, Stanford switched its nickname from Indians to Cardinal.

I also find objectionable the way some of these nicknames often are depicted. The tomahawk chop at Atlanta, Kansas City Chief and Florida State games. The painted Seminole warrior, on horseback, throwing his spear into the turf. The silly, grinning Cleveland Indian logo.

At least, in Atlanta, Chief Nok-a-homa no longer emerges from his teepee behind the left-field wall and does a war dance after every Brave home run.

But those nicknames - Braves, Warriors, Seminoles, Chiefs, Chieftains, Indians - aren't offensive. They are symbols of heroism and glorifications of groups of people. If the Chemawa Indian School in Salem, Ore., is proud of its nickname, "Braves," that should send a message to the Oregonian.

The Oregonian's stance is extreme. Let's concentrate on Washington and St. John's and Illinois. Call the Redskins the Washington Professional Football team. Call St. John's, well, St. John's. Ignoring those nicknames is the most powerful form, the only form, of protest newspapers have.

Is this much ado about nothing?

I think not.

Now more than ever - when many major-league baseball owners (a.k.a. the Japan-Bash Brothers) are considering rejecting an offer to buy the Seattle Mariners because 60 percent of the money would come from a man named Hiroshi Yamauchi; when the politics of David Duke still are alive and fermenting; when Patrick Buchanan's thinly veiled anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic message is gaining momentum; and when skinheads are threatening the lives of men of courage such as Bill Wassmuth - we need to fight racial stereotyping on every front.

Eliminating from the sports pages nicknames based on skin color or based on offensive adjectives is a very small, but healthy step in the right direction.

Steve Kelley's column usually appears Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday in the Sports section of The Times.