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What’s in a Team Name?

I was looking at some football scores, and the site had scores from various sports, and I saw two NHL hockey scores. a sport I do not follow at all. But I saw the team name San Jose Sharks, and I thought it must be the original Los Angeles Sharks, and that they moved to San Jose. (I remember the advertising jingle they put on the radio, when they were first starting. “Sharks! Sharks! LA. Sharks!”) And they were playing the Buffalo Sabres, I wonder how they got that name. The other game was between the Chicago Blackhawks and some other team.

When I was a boy, learning about the various sports, I sort of rooted for the Chicago Blackhawks, because my father was born and grew up there. Their most famous players were Gordie Howe, and then Bobby Hull, I think. Remembering that team name, I tried to recall whether Blackhawks came from an Indian tribe in Illinois. As for my writing “Indian”instead of “Native American” in this context, please note that I am not calling a person an Indian. But these were Indian tribes; and I noted that with endless ads regarding two Propositions on this year’s California ballot about gaming in casinos, many of the ads featured Native American spokesmen who spoke of “Indian tribes,” and “Indian gaming rights.” So I guess it is okay to use when talking about tribes, as I am doing here.

Anyway, I was musing about the brouhahas which came out of various Native American groups or individuals complaining about a team name, mostly in college sports, some in pros. And I certainly can understand that, though it seems to be selectively employed.

I am doing this from memory, so someone might point out an error here and there, but I hope there are none. I well remember college sports team names. Stanford University was for decades called the Indians, why, I do not know. I think they had a mascot in headdress. But this was changed, and they became the Cardinal, because their colors are red and white. Marquette was the Warriors, and criticism caused them to change their name to the Golden Eagles. Dartmouth College. a proud Ivy League school, was the Indians; now they are the Big Green.

St. John’s were the Redmen, and I am not at all sure that this had anything to do with Indian aspects, but pressure caused them to become the Red Storm. Syracuse was the Orangemen, probably just because their colors were orange, and as a complement to St. John’s name, but they ended up changing that, too, to the Orange.

Interestingly, Florida State was the Seminoles, and there was a push to get that changed, but the members of the Seminole tribe said that it was a honorable name for the school to identify with. If you ever watch Florida State football, you will know that right before kickoff, a member of the tribe, wearing full headdress, rides on a horse, and plants a flaming spear on the grass on the sidelines. I think that he is always named after the famed Seminole chief Osceola.

So there are exceptions. Going to pro sports, I remember the cantankerous owner of the NFL Washington Redskins, George Preston Marshall, saying that he would never change their name as long as he owned them And he did not, but eventually new ownership came in, and many years later, the Redskins changed their name to the Commanders. Actually, for two years or so, the Redskins name was removed; and I guess while the franchise was figuring out what name to take, or trying to find one which no one would complain about, they were called the Washington Football Team. Seriously!

In baseball, there was the very old, maybe original, franchise, the Cleveland Indians. They unfortunately had a logo of an Indian, named Chief Wahoo, grinning, and that occasioned complaints; and finally they recently changed their name to the Cleveland Guardians.

The Boston Braves were a longtime National League baseball franchise. They moved to Milwaukee in the early 1950’s, and kept the name. Then they moved to Atlanta in the late 1960’s, and kept the name. They still have the name; remember the “tomahawk chop” which their fans would do in unison in the stands? Even Jane Fonda, whom I admire, did it, with Ted Turner, who owned the team. I think that the Braves finally got rid of their mascot, Chief Nocahoma (“knock a homer,” ha, ha), who looked as ridiculous as Chief Wahoo. But they are still the Braves, and their fans still chop, as do the fans of Florida State.

Oh, I forgot the Utah University Redskins, also known as the Utes, and now only by that name. Miami-Ohio was the Redskins, but now they are the Red Hawks. I rather miss those names. I think that the replacements are mostly insipid; but I am not a Native American, so I can appreciate that they did not like it and wanted it removed–though I do suspect that in some cases it was a small group of activists or headline seekers, who kept calling for the name change. But of course the school and its students and alumni and administration are the ones who have to make that choice.

When I was a boy, the Philadelphia franchise in the NBA was the Warriors. They moved to the Bay Area, and became the San Francisco Warriors, then they became the Golden State Warriors, which they are now. No one seems offended, even in the politically liberal surroundings they play in.

Now, how about Notre Dame, called the Fighting Irish? They have a little person who, at least for many years, plays the part of a leprechaun, dancing around the sidelines They also have a statue, which they call “Touchdown Jesus,” which the players might touch while going onto the field, or after a victory. Now, I think that this is tasteless, but it is their school, and that is what they do. There are some people who attend Notre Dame, who are not Catholic, and maybe even Jewish, or another non-Christian religion. But either no complaints, or the Administration doesn’t care if there are.

Illinois University teams are called the Fighting Illini, surely in tribute to the Illini tribe in that state. No complaints that I know of. And there are those schools with Devil in their name: the Duke Blue Devils, the Arizona State Sun Devils. Their mascots are dressed in devilish attire. I think there is a pro hockey team called the Red Devils, too. Apparently no complaints, no one vehemently offended. What if some were, what would happen? Holy Cross is the Crusaders, bringing up images of the carnage that they caused in the Dark Ages and Middle Ages.

Sometimes I think that all sports teams should have the same name. The Lions. Or the Bears. There are many universities with the team name Tigers: LSU, Auburn (in the same league), Missouri (in the same league as the other two!), Memphis, Princeton. The University of California has several campuses We all know (well, some do!), about the California Bears, and the UCLA Bruins. But do you know that UC Irvine has the team name the Anteaters? I like anteaters! And UC Santa Cruz is the most arty, and proudly untraditional of the UC schools; and when they chose a team nickname, they sarcastically came up with various names. and Banana Slugs won. Of course, I don’t think that they play any team sports there.

There is no significant point involved in my recounting all of this, but it is interesting. I am not a big fan of pressure campaigns to change team names, but I understand the motivations. Maybe every team name should be of an animal, but various armadillos and walllabies might be offended as well. Anyone can find something to be offended by, but I think that team names are not the area to battle over, though I guess it gratifies some people to “win” in getting a team to change its name.

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15 Responses

  1. About Syracuse University’s nickname “the Orange”:

    The monarchy of the Netherlands is known as the Royal House of Orange-Nassau. William the Silent (1533-1584), who is considered the “Father” of the Netherlands, was Prince of Orange, then a Protestant principality in Provence (now part of modern France). During colonial times, the Dutch built a settlement in New Netherland called Fort Orange (circa 1624) on what is now Albany, New York. So the Syracuse nickname “the Orange” is a nod to New York’s Dutch heritage. Orange is the royal color of the Netherlands. My guess is that the nickname was also once a way of distinguishing Syracuse as a Protestant university, since it began as a Protestant seminary.

    • William lll of England (1650-1702) was also known as William of Orange, having been born Prince of Orange. He was a staunch Protestant. The orange colors of the Unionists in the UK and Ireland today commemorate him.

    • Very interesting and informative! I like knowing the history of universities and their team names. Very obviously, from that history, Orangemen had nothing to do with race, but they apparently worried that someone might misconstrue it.

  2. Don’t ask me what “Hoosiers” means. There are many theories about the origin of the word but no one really knows. I can say right now it means a freaking loss to Rutgers again!

    • Strange fact: There is a bronze statue of William the Silent (“Still Bill”) on the campus of Rutgers. It was donated by the Holland Society. Rutgers was founded by members of the Dutch Reformed Church.

      True story: William the Silent was not in fact silent. He was given that nickname because he was considered a great diplomat who knew when to hold his tongue, so to speak (pun intended).

  3. Wordle is feast or famine for me. Yesterday, I was Magnificent. Today, I am Phew(y).

    • I also needed six guesses to solve the Wordle. The words which have two, but only two, vowels, are the hardest, I think. From an article today, which I looked at after playing, many did not get the word. I may have been fortunate to get it, only because of my fourth guess helping me.

    • Same with me today… PHEW.

  4. William, I have a question for you.

    Why is Berkeley called “Cal” in the sports world? I have known many people over the years who graduated from Berkeley, taught at Berkeley or were born in Berkeley. NONE of them call Berkeley “Cal”. It’s always Berkeley, except in the sports world.

    • Well, it is the Berkeley campus, the original one, of the University of California. Over the decades, the UC system added more campuses. Cal was the Bears, for the Bear Republic, almost certainly. UCLA is the Bruins. Then more were added. So now one might say “Cal Berkeley,” but I am sure that graduates of that prestigious school would just call it “The University of California.” UCLA is of course The University of California at Los Angeles.

      I have always called it “Cal,” almost every UCLA fan I know, calls it that. “We will play Oregon, then Stanford, then Cal, then USC.” Some people call it “The University of California at Berkeley.” Of course people say “University of North Carolina” when they are referring to the big school at Chapel Hill, but there are other branches. Some small, of course. In the case of UCLA, it is very big, and almost equally as prestigious as UC Berkeley.

      • Thank you for your explanation. I wonder if it because Berkeley’s athletic teams are called the California Golden Bears and therefore shortened to “Cal” in the sports world. They aren’t the Berkeley Bears, which sounds a bit like a Saturday cartoon show.

  5. When UCLA joins the B1G, they better be ready to play in Assembly Hall with their ears ringing. The Hall is built for noise. It was so loud during the UNC game, it was painful. And packed. Standing room only. Students were camped out overnight in very windy 10° weather to get tickets. A really exciting game.

    • Big Ten basketball and crowds are legendary. Actually, I am now thinking that UCLA should perhaps not join the BIG (so called now, because it will add even more teams), even with the hundred million dollars or so it would pay them. Unless the Chancellor and Athletic Director actually commit and spend for athletic excellence in the two major sports, we are going to be embarrassed in football, and not able to win on the road in basketball, in those large arenas. It is going to be humiliating. I wonder if they are just going to use the money to pay off their shortfall, and then coast along. One hopes not, but Chip Kelly should have had his contract extended after last year.

      • Oh, a significant mistype; I wanted to say that Kelly SHOULD NOT have had his contract extended! He disdains recruiting, his teams do not play good defense, and Big 10 power teams are going to score fifty points a game on UCLA.

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