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Friday, January 2
 
Fumbling over what's offensive

By Mark Kreidler
Special to ESPN.com

What, it's finally my turn to be offended by a team name? This is so great; I've been waiting years.

But, listen, can you hang on a sec? The Tomahawk Chop's just making its way around to my section of the stadium, and I'd hate to let the guys down. It's this really fun thing we do.

You understand: It's all about togetherness.

The cry that went up this week was so loud you could hear it all the way from Irvine, Calif., where an otherwise innocuous holiday flag football tournament suddenly became Ground Zero for the debate over freedom of speech and the lingering sensitivity of Americans to 9/11 -- and you don't mind that I use the term "Ground Zero," do you? After all, it only refers to the place in New York City where the World Trade Center's twin towers once stood, where the destruction from terrorists was most astutely and tragically absorbed.

But, shoot, we incorporated "Ground Zero" into the language almost immediately thereafter. People drop the term into conversation daily, saying things like, "I love that place. It's really Ground Zero for fashion."

Now, words and phrases like "Intifada" or "Mujahideen," those are different. Those, clearly, are offensive in ways that longstanding nicknames like Redskins and Braves apparently will never be, as they are associated with such recent images of horror and death and hatred.

And when some of the teams entered in that Irvine tournament, which was organized primarily for young Muslim men, took such names for their little holiday football teams, America had been gifted its latest platform for a conversation about the limits of free expression and the responsibility that is associated with that particular freedom, and -- Whoa! Tomahawk Chop comin' 'round again! Gimme a minute here.

It's interesting, the levels on which the chosen and the unchosen ignorances lie here. First of all, understand that the couple of teams with offensive names -- another one was "Soldiers of Allah" -- constituted a small percentage of the overall numbers of teams entered in the tournament, which is scheduled to go off on Sunday. Most of the other teams' names ("4th and Goal," "Muslim Football Allstars") wouldn't raise an eyebrow in your local rotisserie league, much less a little weekend get-together over at the local fields.

Second, there is this: The hot-button words and phrases mean one thing to Americans and another to Muslims, or at least to some Muslims. Intifada, for example, simply means "uprising" in Arabic. Mujahideen means "holy warrior."

Basic enough. We've got Warriors and Braves and Crusaders and Redskins and Pirates and Cowboys and Indians and Angels and Devils and, heck, you name it. When you get to your seventh or eighth or 12th or 25th sports league in America, you're going to find yourself in a sea of not-always-wonderful nicknames, which is what I always tell myself when typing "Devil Rays" (hey, at least it's local!).

But as the Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center noted, "The issue is these are (Arabic) words that are linked to real terrorists, real threats, real murders today. There shouldn't be young Americans chanting the name Mujahideen as American soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq are put in danger and attacked daily."

In fact, it is impossible to live in America and fail to understand the offensiveness of those words. "Intifada" is a term closely associated with the often-violent Palestinian revolt against Israeli occupation. "Mujahideen," in these parts, is taken to mean a group linked with terror, an extremist group, a hate group.

You live in the U.S., you know the feelings those names conjur. To argue otherwise is to profess innocence where none can possibly exist. But, then, we could say that about a few other nicknames, couldn't we?

The organizer of the Irvine tournament, mortified by the negative publicity suddenly directed toward what otherwise would be an utter non-event on the national scene, asked the offending teams to consider name changes, and two of them pretty quickly did so. Meanwhile, the Atlanta Braves and Florida State Seminoles, to name two, continue merrily parodying the Native American with the aggressively stupid Tomahawk Chop (hey, it's all in fun!), while franchises like the Washington Redskins stoutly refuse to acknowledge any great offensiveness connected with their nickname and you can still stop by Jacobs Field in Cleveland and get yourself a Chief Wahoo emblem on your T-shirt. Party on!

It's the classic meeting of the American rights. Just as the young football players in Irvine had the right to choose transparently offensive names for their teams, the people around them had the right to be so offended as to spark a real debate and perhaps even prompt a change, a reconsideration.

It seems fair enough an exchange. After all, it's only sports. Sports are mostly for fun. You'd hate to see a team out there playing a game in a festive atmosphere of spirit and challenge, yet at the same time sending forth a message of intolerance or cruelty or massacre or hatred simply by the choosing of a nickname.

And thank goodness it's finally my turn to get offended. Seems like everybody else already had his.

Mark Kreidler is a columnist with the Sacramento Bee and a regular contributor to ESPN.com





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