Sunday, February 24, 2013

What Team Names Tell Us about America

American sports team’s all have names, wonderful nicknames that fans adopt. Because some Americans negotiate identity through their team loyalties, the team names serve as metaphors that can shape how we view ourselves. Team names, however, also remind us about our history and who we were and are.

We tend to forget this with many modern team names created by marketing departments or focus groups. But team names often possessed an organic relation to the team’s place or origin. Traditional American sports names reflect our diversity and distinctiveness.

1.   Team names point to American work and production.
2.   Team names point to a simpler unrefined time of origins.
3.   Team names call up classic avatars of competition, warriors and history.
4.   Team names hint at the geographic movement as teams abandon one region and move to another to pursue profit
5.   Team names give an insight into the country’s fraught relations with American Indians.

My favorite and most authentic set of names link the teams to what we produced in our regions. These names are grounded in American history and work. States proudly connect their livelihood to their universities.  Think Purdue boilermakers, Wichita State wheat shockers, Nebraska cornhuskers or Texas longhorns to name a few. When professional teams alighted with cities they often linked their team name to the world of work and production. Pittsburgh Steelers, Milwaukee Brewers (original and recent) and the Washington Senators aligned with the original industry of a city.  

History makes some of these names archeological relics. No one connects steel with Pittsburgh anymore or longhorn cattle with Texas wealth production (Houston Oilers anyone?). More recent teams try to bring forward the tradition such as the once and future Seattle Sonics (celebrating Boeing’s aborted supersonic airliner) or Seattle’s Mariners link to its still vibrant air and shipping industries. Houston Oilers catch up with modern Texas wealth production while Dallas Cowboys connect to the Texas ideology and narrative about itself. My Kansas City Royals hark to the city’s long time center of live stock trading. My favorite remains the only team owned by its city, the Greenbay Packers for their meatpacking days. In the future I am looking forward to Bay area nanobots.

These work-based names identify as iconic Americana where work defines us. Only in America do we first ask each other is “what do you do?” Work, purpose and personhood have always bonded in our minds, and many team names reflect that.

Baseball names give us another insight into a much simpler era where the color of socks or red hats sufficed to name a team. We misspell “sox” but we have the Boston and Cincinnati red socks or the Chicago white sox. The long time St. Louis Browns began as brown socks (I mean really, brown socks!). Baseball’s Brooklyn Dodgers celebrated the borough’s skills at dodging trolleys and of course the Yankees began as the Highlanders but ended as the Yankees a nickname to capture its American league origins and become synonymous with the entrepreneur spirit of an age.

American teams adopted lots of names from local and classical history. San Francisco’s growth occurred thanks to the 49’ers pouring in to search for gold. Oklahoma proudly proclaims itself the Sooners honoring the illegal migrants who jumped the gun to settle the last open Indian Territory. An early Boston baseball team captured the feel with Beaneaters. Not many remember that the New York Knicks really are the knickerbockers referring to the silk stocking elite who ruled New York City for centuries.

Another vein of history-based names comes from references to an early American passion for antiquity. This is truer of colleges than professional teams. These names call to mind proud but ancient warrior traditions. The Michigan State Spartans and USC Trojans lead an army of classical myths. (Did anyone tell them that the Trojans and Spartans actually lost?) These historical names can invite controversy as schools like Mississippi rethink their history and relation to the Confederacy. The Minnesota Vikings gesture to the strong Scandinavian roots of the area. Hoards of colleges devoted to the pursuit of knowledge celebrate bloodthirsty pillaging Vikings who tore down civilized learning as their team model, although nothing quite beats the utter barbarism of Idaho’s namesake Vandals.

Humans love to the employ totems that conjure the power, strength, cunning and fierceness of the natural world to infuse their groups. These totems refer to a nature red in tooth and claw. Many states summoned native animals they admired like Michigan Wolverines, Colorado Buffalos, Wisconsin Badgers or Florida Gators. Feline names about with tigers, lions, cougars, panthers galore. Early professional teams ranged far and wide with Chicago Cubs or Detroit’s Tigers and Lions. California used a bear on their republic’s flag and both California and UCLA claim to be bears and bruins. Graduates of universities carry it further and call themselves by name. People will proclaim I’m a Husky or a Gator or Wolverine! We also have the avian contingent of avatars. My own Boston College eagles join many hawks and eagles and other predators. But then we find the Baltimore Orioles and the St. Louis cardinals. I love cardinals most of all, but really, Cardinals as symbols of competitive prowess?

Beyond the courage, cunning and ferocity of warrior and natural totems, some teams always evoked forces of nature such as the Iowa State cyclones. More recently the WNBA gathered a large number of earth elemental almost pagan names—the storm, sky, sun, comets, sparks, and shock. They remind me a bit of a feminist take on getting away from male stereotype names to imbue nature elementals into the women’s teams.

No reflection on team names would be complete how names reveal that professional teams are capitalist enterprises. Their owners will happily abandon one region for another in pursuit of better profits. This disease afflicts the NBA more than any other sport. No one dodges trolleys in Los Angeles. But the Brooklyn Dodgers took the name when they abandoned Brooklyn for LA fifty plus years ago as harbingers of move west and south of the country. No real lakes exist near LA but the LA Lakers still carry their moniker from their sojourn in Minnesota where the Lakers made lots of sense. In one of the silliest name migrations Utah has the Jazz which they stole from New Orleans who stole the Hornets from Charlotte. Last week as an act of contrition, the Hornets will now become the Pelicans to connect to that indigenous grand bird which is the state’s namesake. Some names travel well and resonate with history. The Oakland Athletics kept “athletics” through their travels to Kansas City (the team I grew up with) from Philadelphia or the Atlanta Braves who carried the grand name from Boston to Milwaukee to Atlanta. Both Oakland and Atlanta proudly claim all the great stars of the team/names long meandering histories.

The team name Brave points to how many team names can illuminate our nation’s fraught relation with Native American history. Leaving aside modern political correctness charges, most team names like the braves or Seminoles or Indians honored a narrative of warrior society that emphasized bravery, strength, tenacity and hunter’s mind, although I will never figure out the pure moral ugliness of Redskins. We can get into university-based discussions of whether this “appropriates” cultural identities by dominant white male culture. These postmodern positions led the NCAA to fight to banish such names from colleges. But the proud names carried by many teams evoked a different image affiliated with the warrior traditions of historical and natural totem names.

I think the wealth of team names reflect the wild diversity of the country and its many contradictions in its history. They remind us that naming our teams names ourselves.


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