Saturday, October 30, 2010

A Warrior by any Other Name

Today I broadcast a high school play-off football game between the Indians and the Spartans. Incidentally, I also announced an Indians in the second week of the year, which was also against the Spartans. But that was a different group of Spartans. And it should be pointed out that the Indians that I announced are different than the team that used to be called the Indians, but have been ordered by the state of Wisconsin to quit being the Indians. (I suppose it's important to point out that I am in Wisconsin--there are enough schools in this state alone nicknamed "Indians" or "Spartans" to cause confusion; when you factor in how many teams nationwide have these names, it's beyond confusing).

"My" Indians might very well have to change their name someday, too, depending on if somebody files a formal complaint with the state Department of Public Instruction. Wisconsin recently passed a law allowing for challenges to Native American team nicknames on the grounds of racial and ethnic insensitivity. Of course, this is not a new controversy; in all the time I've been a sports fan I've never not known this to be an issue. In my state's history, the decision by Marquette University to change from the Warriors (a name under which they established a great men's basketball tradition) to the Golden Eagles ignited a firestorm that has lasted for years.

I was a young Marquette fan when the change was made, and I had missed most of the storied history that had been established under the "Warriors" moniker. But my reaction to the change then is pretty much my attitude now--I thought "Warriors" was a dumb name for a sports team, and I thought "Golden Eagles" was even worse. Unlike fans of the University of Wisconsin, who say they are going to watch a "Badger game," Marquette fans have always said, regardless of nickname, that they are going to watch the "Marquette game." Just like "Indians" and "Spartans," the name "Warriors" is so generic as to lose any power of unique identification, and "Golden Eagles" is just a lame attempt to somehow take the uber-generic "Eagles" and make it unique (and a failed attempt at that, as Marquette found themselves some after the change competing in the same conference with the Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles).

While my criteria for a good nickname used to be rooted in a desire for uniqueness, I have now come to believe we are missing something important in this debate about tradition, identity, and sensitivity. We fail to realize that sports nicknames are essentially ridiculous. We've all been born into a world where our favorite teams are always identified by a pair of nouns, one proper and one common: a geographical location or name of institution, followed by some type of person, animal, or thing, usually pluralized. Yet we overlook the fact that we can easily get by without the latter. European soccer fans somehow manage to take their devotion to teams to extremes without nicknames. During the Olympics, we somehow manage to support "Team USA" without feeling the need to call them "The Eagles." The contribution of nickname to the fan experience is entirely peripheral, consisting primarily of logos and the design of memorabilia. And when we think about it, even this is ridiculous. The fact that the Miami Dolphins have an insignia of a friendly sea mammal on the side of their heads as they bash into guys with different color helmets should only remind us that to take sports too seriously is absurd.

So rather than ban Native American names, I don't think it would be terrible to just ban all nicknames altogether. Of course, tradition is too entrenched at this point to ever allow that to happen (to say nothing of the influence of marketing departments). And to be fair, I still cling to the idea of having some kind of unique identifier in place to mark my favorite teams as somehow special (though I am well aware of the absurdity of every fan wanting their team to be "special").

The Cleveland Browns haven't won anything worthwhile in a long time, but perhaps they can help us to reconcile the above problems. This is a team without a real logo, named after a guy (Paul Brown) who gave shape and identity to the franchise. I kind of like the idea of every franchise or every school going back into their history and locating a kind of "patron saint" of the franchise, one who embodies all the values and ideals the team would like to project. Even the staunchest Wisconsin football fan would have to admit that the name "Packers" is an incongruous name for a football team, but wouldn't "Green Bay Lombardis" capture something special? Would Marquette McGuires be a good compromise for Marquette administrators and fans?
To those who argue that such a radical move would take an avenue of fun out of sports, I'd again point to Cleveland. "The Dawg Pound" grew organically, as opposed to an arbitrary edict from a marketing expert. Even the Washington Redskins, owners of arguably the most controversial name in all of professional sports, have seen fans of their own accord embrace an alternate nickname for members of their team. Since the composition and chemistry of teams change over time, they could be constantly deriving new nicknames based on their current roster or style of play (and at the professional levels in particular they are constantly changing logos and colors anyway). So with a permanent "patron saint" moniker, and temporary fan-driven unofficial names, we could preserve tradition, preserve fun, eliminate offensiveness, and assert uniqueness.

And just in case you were wondering, the Indians beat the Spartans 15-13, and will now move on to play a school that I think has the best name in the state--the West De Pere Phantoms.


Anonymous Tim said...

The sports team with our colors and insignia defeated the team with your colors and insignia.

2:36 PM  

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