Bergeson column: Repercussions of a nickname
The recent decision to retire the University of North Dakota "Fighting Sioux" nickname has sent ripples across the national sports scene.
Gerhard Krauthammer, general manager of the New Jersey Jumping Jews of the Eastern Basketball Association, expressed his concern in a press release last week:
"The sudden undemocratic decision by a handful of North Dakota bureaucrats to retire the 'Fighting Sioux' nickname threatens the long and honorable nationwide tradition of naming sports teams after ethnic minorities," he wrote.
Reached at the Jumping Jew front office in Newark, Krauthammer, who over the years has rebuffed dozens of demands by Jewish organizations that the team change its name, insisted that minorities are far too sensitive about nickname issues.
"If they would just lighten up," Krauthammer said, referring to the offended Jews, "they would feel honored to be the namesake of a team which has won three EBA conference titles in eleven years."
Numerous attempts by Krauthammer and the Jumping Jews' organization to reach out to Jewish groups have failed. "We try to get them interested in basketball, but they always leave by half-time," he said with disgust.
"If they would just stay long enough to hear all 8,500 fans in the arena chant 'Let's go Jews!' or 'Hey Jews, shoot for two!' they might realize what an honor the nickname is to Jews everywhere.
"They just don't seem to want to be honored," Krauthammer added sadly.
In 1995, after fans of the arch-rival Wilmington Wetbacks chanted an obscene cheer which could be loosely translated as "Beat the Jews! Beat the Jews!" a Jewish activist group approached Krauthammer about changing the name.
"They said, what kind of message does this send to a young Jewish kid who doesn't understand the difference between sports and real life?" he said, adding, "As if kids are that stupid."
Eventually, the two parties reached a compromise: The Jumping Jews would keep their name, but would contribute a portion of their profits from Jumping Jew merchandise to the local synagogue.
"That got them off our case for a while," Krauthammer said.
The debate flared up again in 2001 when perennial EBA contenders Norfolk Noble Negroes marketed "Jewstink" t-shirts at their Virginia arena when the New Jersey team came to town.
"That was probably a bit over the line," Krauthammer acknowledged.
"But we simply can't control whether our opponents choose to uphold the dignity of Jews like we do," he added.
The controversy subsided after the Noble Negroes agreed that the revenue generated by the t-shirts would go to sponsor Matzo ball tournaments for disadvantaged Jewish youth.
Krauthammer's team was originally given the "Jumping Jew" nickname in the early 1900s, when legendary center Hank Stein led the EBA in scoring for four straight years.
Although the team has had no Jewish players since Stein retired in 1911, Krauthammer alleges that nickname is a way of honoring the great player.
"How can anybody argue with the noble tradition of honoring the only Jewish player in recorded EBA history?" Krauthammer asked.
The Jumping Jew organization takes pride in the dignified manner in which it presents the Jewish race, Krauthammer said.
"Our mascot, Eli the Orthodox rabbi, is not a cartoonish caricature, but instead is presented as a proud and honorable figure on our uniforms and our merchandise," Krauthammer said.
"These nuts who argue that we are making a mockery of the Jews just don't understand what a profound and wonderful honor it is to have a basketball team named after your race," he added. "It is just political correctness run amok."
The Fighting Sioux decision worries Krauthammer, but he hopes the dynamic is different with a professional team than it is in a college situation.
"When you get all these over-educated people thinking about stuff like this, nothing good can come of it," he said.
Krauthammer acknowledges the possibility that there might be some ethnic minorities who could argue they were treated somewhat unfairly at certain times in the distant past.
"I mean, nobody's perfect," he said.
But that's all over now, Krauthammer claims.
"People who keep bringing up this ancient history need to get a life," he added. "I mean, a century of Jumping Jew tradition is at risk!"
Eighty-six percent of Jumping Jew season ticket holders approve continued use of the Jumping Jew nickname, Krauthammer said.
"The majority rules," he concluded. "That's really the bottom line in our society."