Many Native Americans object to being used as sports mascots. And since 1700 at least, they’ve been in no position to enforce their desires on white communities. Instead, they’ve appealed to our sense of decency, asking the rest of us to understand how they feel. After three centuries, the verdict is in: Among humans, empathy is a recessive trait.

As a woke white middle-aged woman, I understand the problem. I get it. I couldn’t take pride in a hometown team called “the Whiteskins” or “the Rednecks,” no matter how respectfully or reverently the name was intended. Because even when the intention is respectful, language is bigger than us; its context extends well beyond our high schools or hometowns. Good intentions mean little when society at large has used names like “redskins” or “Indians” as slurs, suggesting that people of one group are inferior to another. And cartoonish depictions, such as the Cleveland baseball team’s “Chief Wahoo,” compound the problem. Cautiously inching forward into the 21st century, the Cleveland team just announced that, while sticking with its name, they’ll dispense with the Chief in 2019.

The argument for keeping such mascots always seems to invoke tradition — or money. Generations of fans have worn their teams’ jerseys, sung their fight songs and collected, licensed and sold billions of dollars’ worth of memorabilia. But there’s another tradition that such team mascots perpetuate: the one whereby white Americans cannot see beyond their own interests to respect Native Americans. The United States has a centuries-long tradition of ignoring the rights and desires of its native peoples. Native American mascots prove that tradition is alive and well.

But Indians, Braves and Redskins fans, take note: Students, alumni, parents, owners, season-ticket holders and administrators may stick by your team’s mascot, but that doesn’t mean the rest of us will. The Washington NFL franchise has seen sportscasters and writers from the New York Daily News to The Washington Post editorial board boycott its nickname. Check your local paper; odds are that you’ll see the Patriots’, the Giants’ and the Cowboys’ mascot names used consistently, while Washington remains “Washington.” (This newspaper doesn’t use Washington’s nickname in its reporting, with the exception of coverage of the controversy over teams’ tribal nicknames and mascots.)

Being a woman gives me added insight. I’m pretty tired of hearing about Lady Wolverines, Lady Seahawks and, worst of all, Lady Stallions. Not only is a “lady stallion” an oxymoron, it’s also silly and demeaning. Imagine for a minute that men’s teams carried the equivalent qualifier: the University of Maine Gentleman Black Bears, the University of Southern Maine Gentleman Huskies. Calling girls’ and women’s teams “Lady Stallions,” “Lady Black Bears” or “Lady Huskies” reminds us that women’s sports have long been an afterthought. Team names and mascots have been traditionally chosen with men and boys in mind.

So what should they be called, you ask? The “Maine Sows”? The “USM Bitches”? See? That’s part of the point. Regardless of the protective ferocity of a mother bear or the work ethic of a husky, some female identifiers have been used as slurs, too. We can’t change that by insisting we don’t mean it that way.

Calling women’s teams “Lady” something-or-others persists because of the notion that by playing sports, women and girls compromise their femininity. I’ve lived through it, playing high school sports in the 1970s, when female athletes’ sexual orientation was constantly questioned, when the best female athletes were “tomboys” or “played like a boy.”

I’m happy to see that, as a society, we’re making progress. Many girls’ and women’s teams — including those at the University of Maine and USM — have dropped the term “lady.” Other teams, the media and fans should follow. Doing so will help reinforce the notion that the athleticism, power and fearlessness of men and women athletes are natural and admirable. And dropping Native American nicknames and depictions from sports teams altogether will allow native families some refuge from the stereotypes that surround them: on baseball caps and jerseys in the street, in dashboard bobbleheads, and day after day after day in the media.

Some say that mascots aren’t that important. “Forget about it. It’s only a name,” they say, in the same way they’d remind a losing player, “It’s only a game.” But imagine losing something much bigger — like your right to be who you are — again and again, with no hope of winning. In sports and beyond, words carry lots of baggage that we can’t simply erase with good intentions.

Carol Gardner is a resident of Alna.