Editorial: Team mascot critics irresponsibly allege due-process advocates are racist

THE BERLIN INDIANS lined up against the Ripon Tigers in September. Jonathan Bailey photo

When discussing team mascot names that refer to Native Americans, can we please calm down, take a deep breath and try to acknowledge the other’s position before asserting our own?

... Much has been written lately about athletic mascot monikers. The Washington Redskins are under pressure to change their team name. This seems reasonable...

Regardless of its proud heritage, any team name that singles out an entire nationality’s skin color, nose size, hair tint or any other physical attribute, is outdated, irrelevant and insulting.

But then there’s the matter closer to home of whether to change state law that enables one individual to force school districts such as Berlin and Mukwonago to shed their long-held “Indian” team names.

Current statute — the first of its kind in the nation — provides that a single complaint with the state Department of Public Instruction (DPI) over a race-based mascot or team name triggers a hearing.

Since Gov. Jim Doyle signed the bill in May 2010, it has proven virtually impossible for schools to retain their names once this process begins.

This is why the Berlin Indians must change their name, despite the community’s proud affiliation with a particular Indian tribe — the Mascoutins — whose current-day namesakes include a golf course and country club, restaurant, a bus company and a popular hiking/biking trail that connects Ripon to Berlin.

Berlin resident Peter Nicholas, treasurer of the Save the Berlin Indian Committee, testified during a three-hour hearing Oct. 3 before the Assembly Committee on Government Operations and State Licensing that “I’m an Indian and I’m damn proud of it.” He added that his father, a full member of the Penobscot tribe, never felt at home until he moved to Berlin.

The proposed remedy to the existing guilty-until-proven-innocent law would shift the burden of proof from the district to the complainant, requiring the person bringing the concern to demonstrate how discrimination is being perpetuated. Also, rather than allowing a single person to begin the process, it requires that a petition be filed containing names equaling at least 10 percent of the district’s student population.

In Ripon, for example, that would require at least 174 people to sign a petition alleging discrimination. That’s not an overwhelming threshold for a school district comprised of more than 10,000 people. But it assures that a group of people — albeit a vast numerical minority — rather than one individual, are required to allege discrimination.

The issue with which the Legislature is now wrestling — the Assembly passed the bill Oct. 15 and the state Senate will take it up next month — is one of due process, not discrimination.

Yet that hasn’t stopped opponents from calling the bill’s proponents racists and describing their proposal as offensive, discriminatory and hurtful. ...

Due process sets the stage for how decisions are made, and while it can be twisted to favor one side or another, the fact that folks might question its partiality does not make them bigots.

Nor are names of teams that identify with a certain class of people necessarily bad.

If you doubt that, try telling Notre Dame alumni that they are racist next time they root for “the Fighting Irish.”

— Tim Lyke

To read the entire editorial, see the Oct. 31, 2013 edition of The Ripon Commonwealth Press.

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