Mark Kingwell is a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto.
The recent decisions by professional football franchises in Washington and Edmonton to change their names has been greeted with almost universal approval. The time is past for offensive references to Indigenous people to be defended as tradition.
Then, predictably, confusion reigned. Some commentators sliced fine distinctions with related names such as Braves, Chiefs, Indians, Blackhawks or Seminoles. Others condemned the anti-Black depredations of the Texas Rangers. A few argued that no team should presume to name themselves after any people, clan or identifiable group, however honorifically. There go the Vikings, then – but what about Mariners, Packers, Steelers, Brewers, Senators, Canucks, Canadiens and Oilers?
You’d soon have to add everything from Fighting Irish, Demon Deacons, Cornhuskers, Sooners, and Shockers to Knickerbockers, Metropolitans, any remaining Roughriders, Cavaliers, and every species of Crusader, Knight, Paladin, Warrior, or King – even Angels. Making moral distinctions among these groups would be an infinite and maybe impossible task. Except that we all know that the Astros, whatever those are, cheated.
Part of the fun of fandom is following these names, collecting trivia, ranking favourites, and watching the athletes who wear them on their laundry. But names are not an idle business; the fun of sports is also always political. A few years back, I wrote a book about baseball that deliberately avoided the name of the Cleveland major league team (whose name does appear above). I can’t see any valid difference there.
So then what? There is a virtual bestiary of animal names in sports. Most of these co-opt strength and ferocity: bears, tigers, panthers, lions, cougars, bulls, bison, broncos, eagles, hawks, seahawks, timberwolves, razorbacks, gators, wolverines and badgers.
Once freed from big cats and predators, teams have expanded this Linnaean classification with pelicans, penguins, beavers, ducks, gophers, rabbits, swans, flying squirrels, alouettes, mud hens (Corporal Klinger’s fave on M*A*S*H), walleye, steelhead, yellow jackets, hornets, stingrays, barracudas, and even banana slugs or swamp bats. Baseball has a more genteel tradition of birds, from cardinals and orioles to blue jays and swallows. People from Maryland consider terrapins worthy of respect, and some fans in Texas favour horned frogs. Add prehistoric beasts, and you have dinosaurs, raptors, and dinos; add mythical species, and there are titans and giants. The new NHL team in Seattle will be called the Kraken, which is inspired.
But things can be even more poetic. The NFL’s Baltimore Ravens are named for that famous work by Edgar Allan Poe, Charm City’s well-known resident. All-natural names, like the Buckeyes or the (ungrammatical) Maple Leafs are fine, but larger phenomena are better: hurricanes, cyclones, whitecaps, waves, avalanche, thunder, storm, and suns. Flames! Blaze! Stars can be simple or they can be north. Waves can be green and tides can be crimson.
Harvard is just crimson and Stanford is cardinal, a colour, not an incorrect singular. The football Browns in Cleveland are so pared-down that they don’t even have a logo on their helmets. The blues are both colour and musical form – excellent. Baseball socks may be red or white. Rough Riders can become Redblacks, one word for some reason.
Alas, inanimate objects often arrive with military-industrial complexity: jets, pistons, rockets, supersonics, bullets, Colt .45s, bombers, and blue bombers. I prefer the minor-league baseball Biscuits out of Montgomery, Ala. Their logo is a googly-eyed soda biscuit with a big pat of butter in its “mouth.” Who’s eating whom?
Still, there are so many ways to go wrong. The Toronto Raptors are stuck with a name linked to a Steven Spielberg blockbuster, just as the Anaheim Ducks, in contrast to the ones up in Oregon, were a Disney movie tie-in. There are no trolleys to dodge in Los Angeles, where the Brooklyn baseball team relocated in 1958, or lakes for the city’s NBA team, which started in Minneapolis. There might be a jazz scene in Salt Lake City, but I bet it’s not quite up to the one in New Orleans, where that team started in the 1970s.
Sports teams already use expensive graphic design outfits to make their logos. So here’s a suggestion: hire poets and historians to fashion new names. Whether for a person, product, or team, a name creates meaning and resonates beyond its bestowal.
But beware: In 1955, the Ford Motor Company asked poet Marianne Moore to suggest names for their new model. Her suggestions were amazing: Intelligent Whale, Pastelogram, Mongoose Civique, Utopian Turtletop, Varsity Stroke. (That one sounds a bit dirty.)
The company executives rejected them all. They decided to name the car after Henry Ford’s son, Edsel. It was a dud, one of the worst-selling cars of all time.
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