The 1,133 fibs in FiveThirtyEight’s mascot analysis
2,128 sounds more impressive in a headline than 995. It sounds a good deal more than twice as impressive, in fact. But a data-journalism site like FiveThirtyEight has no business inflating its data by even 1%, let alone 100%.
Hayley Munguia is making an important point: the Washington Redskins are nearly the sole focus of protest over the use of Native American sports nicknames, but far from the only offenders. Her plan was to show how many other offenders there are — to, in the manner of FiveThirtyEight, say it with numbers. Numbers are a tricky thing, though.
Per Munguia, there are 2,128 US sports teams that use some reference to Native Americans as a nickname (or 2,129, or 2,146; the article uses multiple numbers, which is itself a problem for a quantitative argument). Munguia uses ‘mascot’ in the piece, but she conflates team nicknames with the human-portrayed characters often present on the sidelines of sporting events. (This is important; the Philadelphia baseball team is the Phillies, their mascot is the Phanatic, and those two things have basically nothing to do with each other.) She also makes no attempt to distinguish between nicknames and the various illustrations and symbolism used to accompany them.
The greatest flaw in Munguia’s premise is that she believes that certain generic terms are references to Native Americans. ‘Warrior’ and ‘raider’ are such generic terms. ‘Warrior’ is simply someone who makes war. Considering that athletics is the modern substitution for the warrior training of our distant ancestors, it is hardly surprising that many team nicknames are this straightforward. Just because Native Americans had warriors doesn’t mean that a warrior is a Native American. The most common use of ‘warrior’ in the present day is for people who are actually fighting in the present day. For example, ‘warrior’ is one of the acceptable generics for a member of the US armed forces (alongside the bizarre ‘serviceman’/‘service member’), because ‘soldier’ (which should be a generic as well) is understood in the US to apply only to the Army, and is thus rejected by members of the Navy, Air Force, and even the Marine Corps, whose members are, in origin, patently soldiers.
The most famous Raiders in sports, of Oakland, after whom many other Raiders are surely named, use the imagery of naval pirates in the European diaspora. This is copied, for example, by the Raiders at the school outside of my hometown. Those two, at least, have nothing to do with Native Americans. Munguia claims to have done a “spot check” on twenty cases of ‘warrior’ and ‘raider’ and established that “a majority” of them reference Native Americans. She doesn’t say how large a majority, nor why twenty is considered a representative sample of 780 uses of ‘warrior’, if it was even a random sample to begin with (I’ll assume that it was), or why, if only a presumed majority of 780 refer to Native Americans, she chooses to count all 780 instances as direct references to Native Americans, as well as all 343 instances of ‘raider’. But here she is making another conflation. She can’t have researched the origin of each of the twenty team nicknames. Her spot check must have visited websites and established that a majority used Native American imagery. That is not the same thing.
A raider is someone who raids. Raiders aren’t especially moral, but that doesn’t appear to be a part of Munguia’s complaint. She is clearly implying that any use of ‘raider’ as a team nickname is demeaning, because it is a direct reference to Native Americans. By contrast, those nicknames that are direct references to Europeans must either be (a) not demeaning, or (b) demeaning, but it doesn’t matter, because they’re demeaning to Europeans.
We can go further in doubting the value of her overall argument. ‘Chieftain’ (not *‘Chieftan’) is hardly synonymous with Native American culture. ‘Chief’ generally is; I’ll concede that sports teams are not calling themselves ‘chiefs’ in reference to petty officers in the navy, or some such thing. But at worst, chief is a culture-specific leadership role. I think we can safely say that most or all of the ‘Kings’ are specific references to medieval Europe, but I doubt Munguia or anyone else wants to consider that a racial term. For the record, the objectionable part would be that it is pro-European, not anti-European. Imagine the blunt version: “Fighting White People”. That’s not insulting to white people; it’s insulting to everyone else.
But ‘chief’, even if it is specific to Native American culture, is a role. ‘Brave’ is clearly specific to Native American culture, but is also just a role. These are, at worst, culture-specific ways of saying ‘leader’ and ‘warrior’. It’s not clear why Vanderbilt’s Commodores, or my father’s Harding High Presidents, are acceptable, despite the reference to Anglo-American culture. And it’s not clear why using Native American imagery and even culture-specific role names is demeaning at all. Many people in the US today celebrate the heritage of aboriginal America, and since they themselves had nothing to do with the aboriginals’ near extinction, I think we can take this celebration as sincere. Modern Egyptians are Arabs, and the Arabs didn’t build the pyramids. But when modern Egyptians lay claim to their area’s heritage, that is clearly done from pride, not scorn. And it’s normal. A rule that requires modern Yankees to refer back only to Europe would be racially exclusionary, based on who we are in the present.
And then there are just some outright falsehoods. The most famous Reds are the Cincinnati Reds, formerly the Red Stockings. They’re people who wear red stockings. That’s hardly about Indians, and presumably several, perhaps all, of the other nine teams called ‘Reds’ are simply copying Cincy. Perhaps Munguia is ignorant of baseball history. Perhaps she is not, but will inflate her numbers with anything that sounds plausible to those who are.
The point of data journalism is not just to use data, but to use it well. Meanwhile, if Munguia wants to be of use with her otherwise-commendable project, she might ask why the Redskins are the subject of a national campaign of outrage, but the University of Mississippi Slaveowners are not; or why ‘Redskins’ is deemed so obviously racist, but this guy is not:
— O.T. Ford