The names, mascots, logos and rituals associated with sports teams evoke strong emotions of solidarity among followers. But these sports symbols have a potential dark side as well.
In the wake of the success of the Atlanta Braves, some Native American leaders have expressed their offense at teams that use Native American names (Braves, Indians, Redskins, Seminoles) and war paint, tomahawks, war chants and mascots in costume. Such symbols stereotype Native Americans, demean their traditions and trivialize their religious rituals.
While there has been considerable debate over the effects of stereotypical symbols on Native Americans, another oppressed group -- women -- is commonly omitted in discussions of the demeaning symbols of athletic teams. Yet the naming of women's teams raises parallel questions.
We have examined the names of sports teams at 1,251 four-year colleges and universities and found that 38 percent had sexist names for women's athletic teams.
These sexist naming practices take several forms. There are physical markers such as "Belles," which denotes beauty rather than athletic skills. There is the use of the feminine suffix such as Tigerettes or Rebelettes, which, as a diminutive, clearly places the women's team as secondary to the men's team (the Tigers or the Rebels). A common form is the use of a male name for the women's teams (Rams, Tomcats, Stags), which makes the women athletes invisible.
Another popular sexist practice is the use of the prefix "lady," as in Lady Jets and Lady Eagles. This label demeans women athletes in at least three ways. First, "lady" evokes propriety and elegance, characteristics decidedly unathletic. Similarly, "lady" recalls the age of chivalry, suggesting that women are helpless, and cannot do things for themselves. Third, there is the bizarre use of "lady" with a male name -- such as the Lady Friars, Lady Rams and Lady Gamecocks. Using such oxymorons contributes women's secondary status in sport.
Finally, there is the naming practice that trivializes and de-athleticizes women by making them playful and cuddly rather than serious athletes. Some egregious examples of this practice are, contrasting the names for male and female athletic teams: Fighting Scots/Scotties, Blue Hawks/Blue Chicks, Bears/Teddy Bears and Wildcats/Wildkittens.
Many consider these naming practices for teams, whether using Native American names or sexist names, to be trivial and insignificant. They say the symbols are innocent because no harm is intended. Others believe activists should spend time on more important struggles, such as equal wages.
These views minimize the importance of symbols, not realizing that words, names and even jokes have served to elevate some groups while keeping others "in their place." Symbols are extremely important in the messages they convey. Their importance is understood when rebellious groups demean or defame symbols of the powerful, such as the flag.
Most of us, however, fail to see the problem with symbols that demean or defame the powerless since these symbols support the existing power arrangements in society. Despite their apparent triviality, the symbols surrounding sports teams are important because they can, and often do, as we have seen, contribute to the patterns of dominance in society.
D. Stanley Eitzen is professor of sociology at Colorado State University. His research specialties are sports, social problems and social inequality. Maxine Baca Zinn is professor of sociology at Michigan State University. Her research interests center on gender, race, class and families.