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Stand up and be counted on nickname

I hope there are more to come.

Lake Shore High School on Friday joined Akron in cancelling its upcoming lacrosse games with Lancaster, in protest of the school’s “Redskins” nickname. Both boycotting schools have numerous Native American students.

Welcome, “Redskins”-defenders, to the larger world.

School officials at Akron and Lake Shore said they were approached by Native American parents and students in the wake of Tuesday’s mascot discussion forum in Lancaster. Officials called the boycotts a stand on principle, a matter of conscience.

I hope that the spread of conscience is contagious.

“It’s our school showing that we all, as one, agree with our Native American families that this term is offensive,” said Kevin Shanley, Akron school superintendent. “If we didn’t do anything, it would appear that we were condoning it. We chose instead to support our students and families.”

The stand started with students who play, appropriately, a sport invented by their ancestors. The offensive nickname doesn’t merely reference skin color. Scholars say “redskins” was the term for scalps of Native Americans, taken for bounty.

So much for the notion that the nickname “honors” Native Americans. It’s like saying a shackles and chains emblem “honors” African Americans.

Yet some are blind to what should be self-evident. Sometimes it takes the disapproval and outrage of others to open eyes, to change minds.

Akron’s lacrosse team didn’t want to play a team whose nickname – even unthinkingly – insults them. I applaud them for standing on principle, at the risk – in an age of anonymity-driven social media – of potentially ugly blowback.

“We’re very confident,” Shanley told me by phone, “this is the right thing to do.”

It’s 2015. Numerous Native American nations, civil rights and religious groups and others say the term is offensive. We wouldn’t nickname a team the “Sambos,” “Wops,” “Kikes,” “Micks,” “Polocks,” “Wetbacks” or any of a sadly vast array of racial, religious or ethnic slurs. So why do we tolerate “Redskins”?

The issue hits closer to home for schools with a cross-section of Native Americans – 11 percent at Akron, 15 percent at Lake Shore. But to my mind, right or wrong isn’t dependent on proximity. There’s no reason for disapproving students and parents at schools without a strong Native American presence not to take a similar stand.

Akron’s Shanley said all of the school’s lacrosse players, Native American or otherwise, wanted to cancel the game. But for some, the insult is understandably personal.

“After I spoke with the team,” said Shanley, “seven of the Native American players came up, shook my hand, and said, ‘Thank you.’ ”

I understand that the “Redskins” nickname is a “tradition” in Lancaster that goes back 70 years – and that it wasn’t meant to offend. But not all traditions are worth preserving.

Major league sports for years had a “tradition” of excluding blacks. Whites-only restaurants, rest rooms, hotels and water fountains were long a “tradition” in the South. White vaudeville performers appeared in blackface. And on and on. Some “traditions” are, in retrospect, embarrassing, demeaning or downright appalling.

As times and people change, the eyes of larger society open to how racist, offensive or insulting aspects of culture can be – things many people once never thought twice about. It’s beyond argument: Reducing any race or ethnicity of people to mascots, sidekicks or the equivalent of household pets is demeaning – and reflects badly on the people who perpetuate it.

It’s why numerous schools have in recent years changed their offending stripes. St. Bonaventure in the ’90s jettisoned the “Brown Indians” nickname and the student mascot, dressed in buckskin and feathered headdress, who cavorted at basketball games. St. John’s “Redmen” are now the “Red Storm.” Cooperstown High students recently drop-kicked their “Redskins” nickname. And on and on. Rather than defend the indefensible, people raised their consciousness, changed a nickname and moved on, having done their small part to make the world a better place.

Sometimes the larger community provides a push. As portrayed in the movie “Selma,” nationally televised images of Alabama state troopers clubbing, whipping and tear-gassing civil rights marchers prompted people of conscience across the country – of all races – to rise in protest.

Granted, an offensive school nickname is not in the same moral universe as the beatings, lynchings and denial of basic rights to Southern blacks that stains our history. It’s the metaphoric difference between lightning and a lightning bug. But it boils down to the same principle – treating people with respect. And standing up when it doesn’t happen.

To parents, students and officials at Akron and Lake Shore, that means boycotting games.

Numerous sportswriters refuse to write the nickname of Washington’s NFL team in protest of owner Dan Snyder’s myopic refusal to erase “Redskins.”

The facts are clear, the outrage is real. The sooner “Redskins” disappears, the less insensitive and out of touch its defenders look. Even a bunch of high school kids can see that.