Empathy, racism, and Venn diagrams

Balls, Pucks, and Monster Trucks
By RICK WORMWOOD  |  April 18, 2012

Roland Cote raised his hand. Fifty people were in the basement of a Sanford church, listening to several Native Americans and tribal elders, some of whom had driven more than 500 miles to be there, speak about how offensive the local high school's continued use of the mascot name "Redskins" was for their community. Until that point, each Sanfordian to speak had done so in support of the message being espoused by their Native American guests, endorsing the idea that the Redskin had to go, but Roland Cote was of a different mind. (I knew he was dead set against the mascot change after he harangued my mother over the issue as she was leaving church, in the aftermath of my first article on the topic, "Last of the Redskins," November 28, 2008.)

He began by introducing himself, and listing his bonafides as a retired teacher, life-long local, and coach who had led Redskin teams for decades. Cote then described his hope that the Sanford School Committee would not change the mascot, explaining to the tribal representatives (some of whom visibly stiffened at Cote's words) how the term "Redskin" was meant respectfully. After making the audacious claim that nobody in Sanford had ever been a racist, Cote said, "We've always been very, very proud of it. I was born a Redskin. I'm gonna die a Redskin."

Calling someone a "pillar of the community" is a tired cliché, but if you're describing Roland Cote's career educating Sanford's children, teaching social studies, as well as the finer points of free throws and laying down bunts, it fits perfectly. Coach Cote is a pillar of the community, a constant presence in the Sanford of my youth, sitting beside us in the pews at Saint Iggy's, and instilling positive values in the town's classrooms. I was also his paperboy for a time. I know Coach Cote. He's as good a man as good men come, but he is wrong about the Redskin. (He's also wrong about nobody in Sanford ever being a racist. The KKK was very powerful there in the 1920s, electing a whole slate of Klan candidates to local office. True story. Look it up.)

In the years I've been writing about this issue, urging my alma mater to make the change, I've come to realize two things. The first is that many people in Sanford have too simplified a definition of racism. They think that, since they aren't Bull Connor, training fire hoses on Civil Rights marchers in 1963, that nothing they think, do, or believe in can be racist, and they use that misconception to let themselves off the hook. As I've said before in this column, for whatever reason, too many of the good people of in my hometown simply lack empathy for the Naive Americans they claim to be honoring, and while a lack of empathy isn't the exact same thing as racism, if they were both illustrated in a Venn diagram, most of the area would be in the middle. And when Coach Cote says that he doesn't care what anyone thinks, or what the school board ultimately decides, that he'll die a Redskin, what can you call that except a complete lack of empathy? It's sad.

Always a fair man, Cote also stipulated that he would live with the school board's decision after they vote next month. Ultimately, I hope that vote disappoints Coach Cote, but I also know that nothing could weaken that man's dedication to his community, so, on that front, it shouldn't matter.

Rick Wormwood can be reached at  rumblingp@gmail.com.

  Topics: News Features , Bull Connor, Redskins, Native Americans,  More more >
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