Time to end rugby’s uneasy, ill-chosen Crusade

Canterbury and Tasman’s Super Rugby franchise can no longer be called the Crusaders - any more than it can be called the Jihadis.

Holy wars, whatever their persuasion, aren’t cool. Celebrating, glamorising or minimising holy wars is not a correct thing for any community to do, much less one that has witnessed first-hand the horrific reality of religious terrorism.

The Christchurch gunman may be a white supremacist, however his ghastly violence targeted a religion, not a race. That’s an unescapable truth.

New Zealand has, for the most part, reacted admirably to the heartbreaking events in Christchurch, expressing solidarity and love for the victims, their families and the Muslim community. It’s simply unthinkable that we draw some kind of line in the sand for the extension of the national decency at the name of a sports team – in doing so asking the nation’s Muslim community to turn a blind eye to the fact our premier sports franchise is named after violent campaigns to subdue their faith.

It is not their fault, but the Crusaders no longer symbolise only sporting excellence. If they stick with the name, an organisation that should be a beacon of pride will become a lightning rod for division.

This isn’t an issue that will simply go away. Just ask the Washington Redskins. Controversy about the use of the term Redskins began in the 1960s – over 50 years ago – and the criticism has only become more strident over subsequent decades.

In 2015, it seemed the Redskins would be in urgent need of a re-brand when an appeal board of the U.S. Patents & Trademark office voted to cancel the football team’s trademarks on the grounds they were disparaging to Native Americans.

A first appeal by the football team was dismissed by a judge, however in a separate case in 2017 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously that not allowing disparaging names to be protected by trademark registration was an “unconstitutional infringement of freedom of speech”.

So the Redskins name remains, to the dismay of many.

In New Zealand, there is no question as to the legality of the Crusaders’ name. The issue is purely a moral one.

New Zealand Rugby’s announcement that it would enter a period of consultation over the issue is understandable, but wrong. This isn’t an issue that can be decided correctly by canvassing lots of people’s views.

For starters, the view of the majority isn’t necessarily going to be the correct one.

In America, supporters of keeping the Redskins name – and the strong history and tradition that accompanies it – argue that the term isn’t really all that offensive or pejorative. Of course, most of the people arguing that aren’t native American. Their view isn’t exactly supported by history.

In 1863, for example, Minnesota’s Daily Republican newspaper printed the following announcement: "The state reward for dead Indians has been increased to $200 for every red-skin sent to Purgatory. This sum is more than the dead bodies of all the Indians east of the Red River are worth."

No negative connotations there, then.

If polled, it’s likely the vast majority of citizens in Crusaders country would feel their team’s name does not carry any significant negative connotations. That makes them ignorant, not correct.

People being blind to a harm being visited on others doesn’t provide a meaningful basis for continuing to perpetuate that harm.

And the Crusaders name is harmful – not just to Muslims in Christchurch, but to the aspirations of a nation determined to respond with kindness, love and unity in the face of what was, frankly, one man’s evil crusade to perpetuate religious and racial intolerance.

The word isn’t used out of context in that last sentence, either. The wider definition of the word crusade is: “a vigorous campaign for political, social, or religious change”.

An argument oft posited in favour of retaining the Redskins name is that polls of native Americans show they aren’t offended by the name.

You’d think, then, that would be the end of the debate. Nothing to see here, back to Redskins throwing around pigskins.

Or not.

The main polls cited by defenders of the term have been widely discredited. An oft-cited 2004 survey used methodology so flawed even the researchers who collected the data subsequently issued a memo saying the survey “should not be taken as an accurate reflection of Native American attitudes at the time”.

A subsequent Washington Post survey of “self-identifying” Native Americans that found the Redskins name didn’t bother 90 per cent of them was also panned.

"The reporters and editors behind this story must have known that it would be used as justification for the continued use of these harmful, racist mascots,” a statement from the Native American Journalists Association said.

“They were either wilfully malicious or dangerously naïve in the process and reporting used in this story, and neither is acceptable from any journalistic institution."

An alternate study conducted by the Center for Indigenous Peoples Studies at California State University – in which 98 native Americans were positively identified from a sample of 400 respondents - found that 67 per cent of native Americans agreed the name Redskins was “racial or racist”, while 60 per cent of non-natives believe the term wasn’t offensive.

The trend in America is for a shift away from the use of Native American imagery by sports teams. Just last year, Major League Baseball club the Cleveland Indians opted to remove their Chief Wahoo logo from its stadium and uniforms, all but conceding it was in fact a racist caricature that perpetuated negative stereotypes of Native Americans.

If anything, the Crusaders’ name and logos perpetuate stereotypes about Canterbury – that it is a bastion of white New Zealand full of people who aren’t naturally inclined to detect any issues with having a rugby team named after a centuries-long attempt at religious genocide.

In a world marred by religious violence, the Crusaders' brand was already dubious before March 15. The events of that day in the team’s home city have made it utterly untenable.

The arguments for keeping a name bequeathed by New Zealand Rugby as a marketing tool at the inception of Super Rugby aren’t strong, amounting to blithely, belligerently clinging to something because that’s the way it has always been.

New Zealand Rugby needs to show leadership here and announce the name will change. There should then be a consultation process focused on what the new name will be.

The rugby people of Canterbury and Tasman deserve the right to determine their team’s identity. But clinging to the past in the face of a forever-altered future can’t be an option. This isn't an issue that will simply go away.

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