CFL Pass

The approach Edmonton's CFL team takes to social issues apparently doesn't extend to the team's nickname

In late June, a player for the Edmonton Eskimos took to Twitter to express his views on matters relating to homosexuality.

Christion Jones tweeted “Man ain’t suppose to be with a man. A women is not suppose to be with another women.”

Imagine if the following scenario had occurred in response. Imagine the team released a statement saying Jones was an important part of the football squad and would be retained, but that the organization would “ramp up our engagement with the LGBTQ community to assess their views” on the controversy.

Let’s see if we can find some common ground here where everyone’s views can be accommodated. Football players have been expressing these kinds of views for decades, and it’s important to respect the traditions of the locker room, right? There are also other people in society who agree with Jones, so there’s no proven consensus on the topic.

Except that’s all fiction. That’s not what happened at all.

In real life, Jones was immediately released by the club. Team officials said in a stern news release “there is no place for such commentary on our team.”

The fact that Jones is a fringe player and there is no sign of the CFL actually playing games in the near future because of the coronavirus pandemic made the decision easier for the football team. Still, it showed a sensitivity to an important social issue. The team demonstrated it understands that times change, and that something a CFL player might have said or believed 50 years ago, or 40 years ago, or even 10 years ago, is no longer acceptable.

The club certainly didn’t defend Jones in any way, or support him for having the right to free speech and his own independent views. Well done.

It was on another subject, the issue of the use of the team name “Eskimos,” that Edmonton’s CFL team chose a completely different approach. The discussion has been brewing for years, and hit the news again last week when Washington’s NFL team announced plans to investigate ending its use of the vile nickname “Redskins.”

We can argue over which nickname is worse. Eskimos is clearly a racist term that’s not even in use any longer and hasn’t been for decades. Modern Edmonton is hardly defined by its connection to the Inuit culture. If Edmonton were to be granted an expansion CFL team today, no one would advocate “Eskimos” as the ideal choice for a team nickname.

But unlike its forceful treatment of Jones, the team decided this was an entirely different matter requiring an entirely different approach. Change the name? No chance. Instead, the team said it would “ramp up our engagement with the Inuit communities to assess their views.”

It reinforced the decision announced earlier this year when the organization said it wouldn’t change the name after conducting research that showed there is “no consensus” on the subject. When pressed, the team declined to release the research.

No matter that the U.S.-based company Dreyer’s Grand Ice Cream recently announced it will phase out the product “Eskimo Pies,” acknowledging the brand name is “derogatory.” No matter that Inuit MP Mumilaaq Qaqqaq has urged the CFL team to change its name.

“The fact there is NO CONSENSUS means CHANGE THE NAME,” she tweeted.

No matter that Natan Obed, national Inuit leader for Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, has eloquently explained why the used of the term is offensive.

“The colonial legacy of naming is about power and control,” he wrote. “The issue of Inuit being used as a sports team mascot matters, because this is the way this legacy continues to play out in popular culture.”

An anti-gay comment deserved immediate punishment. The team didn’t take a survey on Jones’s opinions before acting. The use of a derogatory ethnic slur, on the other hand, would require decisive evidence of community consensus before the team could act.

Why the difference? Why did Jones have to pack his bags but the use of the term Eskimo must be defended indefinitely?

Well, the easy answer is because like most pro sports teams, the Eskimos don’t actually stand for anything outside of selling tickets and merchandise. Unlike most CFL teams, the Edmonton franchise has been consistently profitable for years, and clearly did not want to be cast as anti-gay for fear it would hurt business. American players in the CFL are particularly dispensable, so it was easy to dispense of this athlete and move on.

In the case of the team name, however, the organization is far more concerned with retaining the loyalty of long-time ticket buyers and fans who, for sports and political reasons of their own, may be reluctant to see the team change its name. The Inuit, meanwhile, are a historically marginalized and disadvantaged community in our country with little political or economic clout. They have no voice, no leverage to use in this matter.

Once, the Eskimos could fill 56,000-seat Commonwealth Stadium for football. Last season, the team averaged less than 30,000 fans per game. This is an organization that is clearly more interested in desperately keeping the fans it still has rather than doing the right thing, at least when it comes to the team’s nickname.

The contradiction between the treatment of Jones for his anti-gay tweets and the defence of team’s racist nickname was noted by the CBC comedy show “This Hour Has 22 Minutes.”

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“The Edmonton Eskimos released a player for posting an offensive tweet. Still no word on when they will release their own name,” the show tweeted.

Ultimately, Edmonton’s CFL team will change its name. It must happen. But instead of being proactive, or actually taking a principled stand, the team has chosen this to be a hill it wants to defend.

Given the gloomy current state of CFL affairs, it might just be the hill the team dies on.

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