Andrew C. Billings, Jason Edward Black. Mascot Nation: The Controversy over Native American Representations in Sports. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2018. Illustrations. 256 pp. $14.95 (e-book), ISBN 978-0-252-05084-8; $99.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-252-04209-6; $24.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-252-08378-5.
Reviewed by Jennifer Guiliano (Indiana University - Purdue University Indianapolis)
Published on H-AmIndian (October, 2019)
Commissioned by F. Evan Nooe (University of North Carolina, Charlotte)
A Path Forward? The Limits of Public Surveys for Understanding Indigeneity and Mascotry
In Mascot Nation, Andrew C. Billings and Jason Edward Black, professors of broadcasting and communication studies respectively, deploy “empirically driven social scientific data and a humanistic approach undergirded by both rhetorical and cultural criticism” to understand what Native American mascotry is and how it plays out in public spaces (p. 15). Establishing self-categorization theory (chapter 1) and postcolonialism (chapter 2) as its foundational underpinnings, Mascot Nation delves into “the public” and the public’s understanding of the naming, visual imagery, and ritualized performances surrounding mascots and associated debates.
Readers get a glimpse of fan commentary on YouTube videos (chapter 3), the discourse around naming for the University of North Dakota and the NFL's Washington football team (chapter 4), the cartoonish logos associated with mascots and their offensiveness (chapter 5), and the rituals of Florida State University and the Cleveland Indians (chapter 6). Billings and Black also provide a comparative case study of mascot eradication at the University of Illinois and Florida State University (chapter 7) before concluding with an analysis of the 2017 Supreme Court decision regarding the Washington team and the more recent decision regarding disparaging trademarks and the Lanham Act.
Mascot Nation serves to update C. Richard King and Charles Fruehling Springwood’s edited collection Team Spirits: The Native American Mascot Controversy (2001) and King’s edited volume The Native American Mascot Controversy: A Handbook (2010) with more recent historiographical work, including additional case studies. For nonspecialists, Mascot Nation fills a gap by casting a wide net and offering conclusions backed by the diverse cast of disciplines that are engaged in mascot research. The work of Jacqueline Keeler, Jay Rosenstein, Laurel R. Davis, Brenda Farnell, King, Springwood, Sudie Hoffman, Ellen J. Staurowsky, James V. Fenlon, Lawrence R. Baca, Carol Spindel, Stephanie Fryberg, and others allow Billings and Black to incorporate a wealth of deep and complex research. Brief histories, contextual vignettes, and short narrative arcs about selected high schools, colleges and universities, and professional teams move the reader between local, institutional, and virtual environments as needed. This allows the authors to illustrate the complexity of mascotry as cultural phenomenon without bogging the reader down in any one single case study or issue.
Billings and Black combine this with their own original research, which considers the acceptability of mascot names, logos, and rituals via a comprehensive survey of “attitudes about Native American mascots—and also some oft-mentioned mascots as potentially troubling outside of Native American terrain (e.g., the Notre Dame ‘Fighting Irish’)” (p. 63). They surveyed 1,073 respondents using the Mechanical Turk (MTurk) service. Specifically seeking to differentiate self-categorized sports fans from non-sports fans, Billings and Black identify a clear pattern that non-sports fans find Native-themed names less acceptable than self-identified sports fans. Their analysis shows that “the gap between the name ‘Braves’ and some of the names scoring lowest on the scale (e.g., ‘Redskins’ and ‘Savages’) is as wide as the gap between ‘Braves’ and most any other mainstream mascot name” (p. 74). More revealing is their conclusion that respondents were “uncomfortable” with name changes promoted by government agencies and laws, educational systems, corporations, private parties like the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), and public organizations, including anti-mascot organizations (p. 82).
The challenge of this original research is its very premise as a method of studying mascotry within a postcolonial framework. In their introduction, Billings and Black ask “can the acceptability or offensiveness of anything be determined via national poll?” (p. 2). They describe the failures of the May 2016 Washington Post poll and its methods: an inability to substantiate that the respondents were actually Native, the age representation skewed older in comparison to the current median age of Natives in the US, and the polling questions themselves “did not use polar opposites” (p. 3). Their methodology implies not only that national polls are useful but also that they are a legitimate form of scholarly research about Native peoples.
Billings and Black are careful to point out to the reader that their survey “featured a near-equivalent gender split..., with racial demographics very close to census data for the U.S. population (e.g., 69 percent white)” (p. 63). They also note that they did not seek nor eliminate any Native American respondents. Methodologically, the reliance on US census categories is quite problematic. The survey mechanism does not account for indigenous-centered epistemologies, which is a key intervention by the postcolonial and indigenous scholars whose work frames their analysis. A two-category gender choice does not recognize the postcolonial critiques of binary gender as reductivist. Nor do Billings and Black reveal how multiracial individuals were expressed in their survey. The authors would have been well served to provide a complete reproduction of the survey instrument either in an appendix or via the inclusion of citation to published raw data. They also might have considered how the lack of respondents’ knowledge of Native tribal names much less specific historical and contemporary information might invalidate their survey. They also might have assisted the readers in grappling with the ethical and functional issues associated with using MTurk for data collection. In the last eight years, researchers have found not only that MTurk’s worker pool is paid way below the mandated federal minimum wage but also that MTurk respondents become de facto experts at taking surveys. They also are less representative than other survey populations. They are usually “more educated, more underemployed, and less religious when compared with the general population.” Thus, if their survey responses show that “the public” knows little of Native America and its tribes, then the question Billings and Black pose about the acceptability isn’t can surveys tell us about mascotry but rather should surveys be considered reliable on Native American mascots when the respondents readily admit they know little, if anything, about indigenous peoples.
In trying to capture all sides of the debate the authors are validating that it is public opinion that matters in the mascot debate rather than the voices of tribally connected Natives who have a valuable lived experience. They do include an interview with Jaqueline Pata, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) regarding NCAI’s campaign to eliminate Native American mascotry. Her role is to introduce readers to the historical roots of the anti-mascot debate as well to serve as a vehicle to tell readers that polling is a problematic mechanism for understanding public sentiment. They also include a very brief coda that sees a hopeful future where this debate has been resolved.
The strength of the text for nonspecialists is ultimately its greatest weakness. Continually, Billings and Black note that they are “isolating” a variable in their analysis. This allows nonspecialists to focus on just that particular aspect of mascotting. Logos are divorced from rituals. Online comments on YouTube are separated from explorations of fan behaviors like the Tomahawk Chop. Polling data is separate from oral interviews. Experts though will recognize that by isolating particular aspects from one another, Billings and Black are neglecting to reckon with the messy nature of mascots and their existence. They are ceding to the premise that it is the “public” who should determine acceptability or not, rather than Native people who are culturally connected.
Charlene Teters faced insults, taunts, thrown objects, and even death threats, but University of Illinois students continually responded as part of polls that Chief Illiniwek was acceptable. Stephanie Fryberg’s research has shown that there is a direct link between the existence of mascots and students’ (not just Native students) perceived self-worth. Anti-mascot protestors have faced real consequences for their activism. Their engagement is not just rhetorical or virtual. It is putting their bodies on the line in the face of threats of violence.
Because Billings and Black are seeking the “middle ground” and the “path forward” from the debate, Mascot Nation is ultimately limited in its use by specialists who might seek to extend postcolonial theory to decolonial research practices.
. Michael Buhrmester, Tracy Kwang, and Samuel D. Gosling, “Amazon’s Mechanical Turk: A New Source of Inexpensive, yet High-Quality, Data?,” Perspectives on Psychological Science 6, no. 1 (2011): 3-5.
. D. Jake Follmer, Rayne A. Sperling, and Hoi K. Suen, “The Role of MTurk in Education Research: Advantages, Issues, and Future Directions,” Educational Researcher 46, no. 6 (2017): 332. For more on MTurk as a social science/behavior research environment, see Steven V. Rouse, “A Reliability Analysis of Mechanical Turk Data,” Computers in Human Behavior 43 (2015): 304-7; and Adam J. Berinsky, Michele F. Margolis, and Michael W. Sances, “Separating the Shirkers from the Workers? Making Sure Respondents Pay Attention on Self‐Administered Surveys,” American Journal of Political Science 58, no. 3 (2014): 739-53.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-amindian.
Jennifer Guiliano. Review of Billings, Andrew C.; Black, Jason Edward, Mascot Nation: The Controversy over Native American Representations in Sports.
H-AmIndian, H-Net Reviews.
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