• Symbols of Control

    by  • June 20, 2013 • Avi Goldberg, Features, Football, Futbol, Soccer • 1 Comment

    © Chantal Lefebvre

    © Chantal Lefebvre

    THERE’S BEEN A LOT OF TALK in the last several weeks about two issues in sports that may not, at first glance, appear to have much in common. In one instance, Quebecers, and many Canadians, agonized over the case of the Quebec Soccer Federation’s (QSF) policy, now overturned, to prevent Sikh boys from wearing turbans on the pitch in Quebec youth soccer. At the same time, debate has intensified over the question of whether it’s time for the Washington Redskins to respond to mounting pressure to change its name given the pejorative connotations associated with its original selection and current use. I’ve heard no detailed comparisons made between these two situations, but their specific dynamics, consequences, and surrounding media discussions share a narrative about the limits to, and potentials for, social inclusion in North America.

    In debates over turbans and a football team’s nickname, the most obvious point of commonality is that they’re both conflicts in which symbols, and their meanings, are vigorously fought over.

    The turban, a piece of cloth that covers the hair, is an obligatory article of faith for Sikh males that, according to the QSF, potentially compromised player safety on the soccer field. Without a shred of evidence, however, to support their safety claim, many believed that the ban was just another example of Quebec’s lack of openness, or even xenophobia, towards cultural or religious expression that deviates from the secular identity that’s upheld as the province’s preferred social model. From this perspective, the turban ban is part of the current government’s goal to mandate a secular public sphere, one devoid of all cultural expression other than the Christian norm that, according to nationalist political discourse, stands as the shared heritage of all Quebecers.

    After a series of national and international reverberations that were both amusing and embarrassing for Quebec, the QSF finally backed down and rescinded the ban. Whether the turban ban was truly initially upheld for safety or enacted as part of an official policy of state secularism, the meaning the QSF assigned to the turban was one of exclusion: one couldn’t be a religious Sikh boy and participate in sports games administered by organizations in one’s own community.

    Echoing views of other teams with aboriginal iconography in their nicknames and logos, the Redskins argue that the moniker promotes positive characteristics of American Indians and that they’re being honoured by its presence on player helmets and jerseys. To support their case, the defenders of Redskins imagery routinely attribute values of strength, courage, pride, and respect to the team’s logo. Turning the symbols-as-reverence interpretation on its head, however, proponents of name change see Redskins as a racist caricature tantamount to nigger or wop, suggest that it negatively stereotypes first nations, and that it distorts their cultural traditions. So, whereas supporters say aboriginal symbols in sport valorize American Indians and give respect to their history, critics argue team names like Redskins, Blackhawks, and Redmen are problematic in the same way as it would be to call a baseball team from Toronto the Wandering Jews or to name a hockey team from Detroit the Warring Arabs.

    Unlike with the suddenly resolved conflict over turbans in soccer in Quebec, the struggle over Redskins in Washington is just heating up. With the symbol’s status as an NFL nickname very much up in the air, its meaning now reeks of social acrimony: a team owner and a league Commissioner can declare Redskins to be a unifying force, but an increasingly restive segment of sports fans and citizens shows the credulity of the official messaging being pushed to the limit.

    In the debates that have arisen, one shared theme advanced both to support the turban ban and to keep Redskins alive is the argument that symbols are only symbols and that their manipulation does no real harm. On the turban ban, for example, it has been argued that, “since it’s only cloth, and not part of the traditional soccer uniform, a player can remove his turban for an hour and a half game, and then put it back on.” Or, regarding Redskins, fans contend that, “the name is the team’s traditional identity that brings our community together, and it has nothing to do with stereotypes that have been promoted in other contexts.” Though not without their logic, the problem with these positions is that maintaining traditional social arrangements via the management of turbans and indigenous peoples’ imagery doesn’t avoid or eliminate harm just because those who benefit from those arrangements say it’s so. There’s been an underreporting of the facts that reveal the harm that can result from either the forced absence of turbans in soccer or from the continuing presence of Redskins in the NFL. The potential harms of public conflicts over cultural symbols are another area of similarity shared by the two conflicts.

    When images of turban-clad Sikhs or team logos featuring American Indians in exaggerated poses are presented and debated in the media, one potential negative consequence is the reinforcement of negative stereotypes of minority groups. Whereas research shows that members of minority groups whose cultural imagery is portrayed in team names or logos tend to associate the images with the positive characteristics the producers of the images claim they’re meant to convey, members of the majority culture are more likely to connect those images with society’s negative biases towards minority groups. Research is yet to show that holding negative stereotypes that emerge from viewing sports logos leads to acting against minorities on the basis of those stereotypes, yet, even if sports logos merely amplify previously existing hateful attitudes towards an identifiable minority group, this cannot be viewed as a situation without harm.

    Another deleterious consequence of public debates over ethnic-based symbols in sports is reduced self-esteem and social opportunities for members of minority groups. Once again, research shows that when minorities observe members of their school or community exchange barbs over the status of their own group, or over the meanings of their cultural practices, they may internalize the social evaluations made by those external to their group. To the extent, then, that neighbours, members of the media, or team owners criticize them for being PC or overly sensitive when they defend their rights against those who demand the maintenance of traditional ways of doing things, minorities can develop a negative sense of self-worth that contributes to hostile interactions between them and non-minorities. Viewed in particular as one of the potential causes of Native American underachievement in mixed ethnic schools or workplaces, the psychological impact of lowered self-esteem that results from watching others fight over their own status in society can’t be wished away by those supporting the status quo regarding minority group symbols in sports.

    With knowledge that the mere communication of public debate over ethnic-based symbols in sports can adversely affect members of minority groups, what can be said in a comparative sense about the media’s role in disseminating information about the conflicts over the turban in soccer and the status of Redskins in Washington?

    Montreal and Canadian media came to life over the QSF’s turban ban, reporting and opining almost daily on its newest developments. It’s noteworthy that the vast majority of English-language reporting panned the QSF for its intolerance, stupidity, or dishonesty, and the primary reason for critique flowed from most columnists’ take that the ban be situated in the context of messy Quebec and Canadian politics. Twitter was overtaken by lively interaction over the capriciousness of the QSF and Quebec Premier, Pauline Marois, while Montreal sports radio hosts, Tony Marinaro and Dave Kaufman, stepped up by opening their call-in segments to debate and by inviting guests on their shows to speak about the issues. And, though forces of social diversity will appreciate the clarity with which the right to practice religion and play sport in Quebec was endorsed by the media, it was equally disheartening that the depth of the issue was practically ignored by the sports sections of local or national newspapers and by major commercial digital platforms.

    While media coverage of the renewed Redskins debate in the U.S. has crossed much more into the sports media than the turban discussion did in the Canada, a good amount is being handled by news, culture, and business publications as well. Whereas a subset of the content replicates the horserace style of analysis that characterizes U.S. political punditry in its handicapping of the outcome of the current uproar over Redskins, both mainstream and alternative publications have devoted substantial space to detailed and thoughtful treatments of the issues. Though openness to change is certainly tepid in some of the coverage, contributors to many local, digital, and even über mainstream sports platforms have weighed in to argue that the time has come to relegate Redskins to the dustbin of history.

    So, as both the QSF and the Washington football team continue to insist upon the goodness of their intentions, a majority of the media coverage has painted both parties into the corner for rationalizing decision making and policies that are widely viewed as being increasingly indefensible.

    The sports are not the same, and the symbols represent entirely different ethnic communities, yet the (short lived) turban ban in Quebec soccer and the ongoing debate over the use of Redskins by the Washington football team have a lot in common. In both cases, organizations with power in society are making decisions about the deployment of cultural imagery representing minorities in the management and promotion of their sports. In both cases, harms against the minority groups attached to the symbols are downplayed or denied by the very governing bodies that are establishing the (un)acceptability of symbols in their sport. And, whereas members of the media often deserve to be taken to task for shirking their social responsibility to engage in critical journalism, a significant amount of coverage devoted the turban ban and to the Redskins has, refreshingly, dug deep in its evidence-based reporting and analysis that’s come to the side of social progress inclusion in the world of sports.

    But, the turban ban and a team owner’s effort to maintain control over the use of a racist image represent more than just disagreements over rules for proper sports attire or over the promotion of an iconic sports franchise. In the respective struggles of Sikhs and American Indians to not have their identities reduced to either ‘pious and non-traditional strangers’ or ‘fierce team mascots,’ these cases also show that minority groups still lack full power to define their place, not just in sports, but also in the wider culture in North America. And, as much as these cases reveal the power that established institutions continue to wield against the extension of full social recognition and autonomy to minority groups in North America, they also show that citizens and members of the media can act to keep that power in check.

    The denial of minorities’ voices in the organization of sports is still alive. But, the growing intensity of efforts to address the harms caused by the unjust policing of ethnic-based symbols in soccer and the NFL shows that the struggle for social inclusion in society has the potential to grow larger and louder.

    Avi Goldberg


    Avi Goldberg is a sociologist who teaches full time at Vanier College and part time at Concordia University in Montreal. His early areas of specialization were in political sociology and social movements but he has more recently shifted his focus to the only slightly less intense concerns of sports, culture, and digital communities. Avi is also a regular contributor to TSN 690’s Morning Show and a semi-regular contributor to the Huffington Post Canada. Avi is a partner to Lori and a father to Ruby. You can follow Avi on Twitter @AviGoldberg.

    One Response to Symbols of Control

    1. BuckeyeinAB
      June 20, 2013 at 18:38

      You are being far too kind, timid even, by suggesting that the Quebec Separatist government is trying to adhere to a Christian norm. Call a spade a freaking shovel – they are bloody racists. The Federal government, other provincial governments and the media are too afraid of them to call them out on this. Christians in Canada were disgusted by Quebec’s action banning turbans so don’t blame Christianity. It was as obvious as a fart in church that their actions were rooted in their anti-anything not French bias. But the norm in Canada is to let Quebec get away with it lest the Rest of Canada (horrors) be accused of being anti-French. I was very saddened by the cowardice of the media in this. If it had happened in Alberta, you’ve have been screaming bloody murder.

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