Edmonton’s mayor is right — it’s time for Eskimos to change name

Edmonton Eskimos players celebrate a touchdown against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats during first half CFL action in Edmonton, Alta., on Friday August 4, 2017. (Jason Franson/CP)

The realm of sport is thick with stubborn tradition. As fans, we cling to ritual and ceremony — and do everything we can to reject change. We pine for the good old days, and lament any alteration that would threaten the perceived perfection of what we love.

It’s all ludicrous, of course. Sport is constantly evolving, despite attempts to anchor firmly in the past. Everything changes, and — with few exceptions — eventually our games are better for it. But still, it seems, we hold on to the past and refuse to let it go. Among our many points of stubbornness, the continued use of racist team names is perhaps the most baffling.

And predictably, once again, the issue is making headlines. Ahead of the CFL western semifinal this week, there have been renewed calls for the Edmonton Eskimos franchise to change a name that is deemed offensive and outdated. This time, the call for sensibility came from mayors of both Edmonton and Winnipeg. When Winnipeg’s mayor, Brian Bowman, said that he hoped the Edmonton team would change its name from the antiquated term for Inuit people, Edmonton’s mayor, Don Iveson, agreed.

“This conversation is not going away,” Iveson told CBC Radio’s Edmonton AM. “With the Grey Cup coming here next fall, it’s going to be difficult to imagine that conversation not coming back in an even more significant way over the next year…. I worry that what would otherwise be a very positive Grey Cup could be beset by a very charged conversation around the team name.”

Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, Canada’s national Inuit organization, which represents 60,000 Canadian Inuit, first petitioned the team to change its name in 2015. The organization says — in no uncertain terms — that the name is offensive and that it should be changed.

“It is my hope that the team will respect the wishes of Inuit and replace its moniker with a team name that is not widely considered an ethnic slur, and does not use an Indigenous ethnicity as its base,” Natan Obed, the president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, told media this week.

At this point, debate over the word — its origins, its intent — is unnecessary. You can argue all you want, but it does not change the fact that many Inuit people find it offensive.

That’s it; full stop. It’s over.

Or it should be, anyway. The fact that the name that is viewed as derisive by the people it refers to seems like it would be enough for a sports organization to recognize the insignificance of keeping its name.

But apparently it’s not. According to the CBC, in August Edmonton’s president and CEO, Len Rhodes, said that the team was speaking with Indigenous leaders but had no plans to change the name.

The CFL promotes itself as a league dedicated to diversity. Its “Diversity is Strength” campaign this season was widely celebrated as a powerful statement of progress, especially when it was launched early in response to racist violence in Charlottesville, Va. It was an admirable, important message. But it looks cheap on the backs of a team that insists on using a moniker that is viewed as hurtful and offensive.

If it's a sports story you're talking about, you can bet they'll be talking about it.

And so, as we’ve seen in so many other cases, a franchise name is deemed more important than the dignity of a cultural group. And a sports organization persistently clings to the nonsensical notion that a team’s name is paramount to its identity.

The Eskimos name has nothing to do with the rich history of CFL football in Edmonton. Changing it won’t erase the lore that has been building for well over a century. It won’t dismiss the club’s 14 Grey Cup victories; or Jackie Parker’s 95-yard dash on a broken foot in 1954; or Ricky Ray’s remarkable 35 completions in a double-OT victory in 2005.

Nothing changes there. And now, with growing pressure from the city’s leadership and the direct request of the organization that represents the Inuit people in Canada, the team has the opportunity to add another important moment to its history.

Change the name. It’s time.