On the Naming of Sports Teams I: Animals & Birds

My foolhardy and woefully unfulfilled goal back when I started this blog was to have one post per week. But that was before the App Store called and before I got on Twitter (@onscrn). I think I may be able to meet that schedule at least for the next few weeks. So, stay tuned. It’s only fitting that I should turn to a Twitter-worthy subject, but one that requires far more than 140 characters to begin to do it justice: the naming of sports teams, which has been under discussion in the context of the recently controversial Washington DC National Football League team name, Redskins.

First, I mean to discuss and analyze this phenomenon and then to provide a solution to the problem of the Washington Redskins name. Rather than do all this in a single post, as I had originally intended, I’ve decided to spread it out over four posts to avoid having a post that’s longer than what almost anyone would read.

Why do sports teams need names anyway? There is a practical aspect. “The Cubs are in town today,” is a succinct way of saying “Chicago’s National League Baseball team is playing here today.” But, beyond that, the need for associating some name and image to a team seems part of our psychic makeup. Primitive societies subdivide tribes into totem groups, each group identified with and named for a specific animal or bird. Nor can we overlook the lions and dragons of heraldry or the eagles of the Roman legions. The emblem gives a sense of reality to an abstract concept of group membership. That is easiest, of course, when the name is concrete instead of abstract. I am very glad that no team I naturally support because of where I live or where I went to school has a name like Magic.

The types of names—I’ll say names rather than mascots to avoid confusion with actual animals sometimes seen on the sidelines (such as Bevo, the Texas longhorn) or with the unfortunate walking cartoon characters with disproportionately large heads, who seem a requirement at games now—fall into a few categories. Very few team names have more than three syllables, and I can’t think of any with more than four. So shortness is a criterion. The name needs to be easily shouted in cheers. Alliteration, as in Jacksonville Jaguars and Pittsburgh Pirates, is obviously a feature that team namers love.

In this blog post and the following three, I shall take a stab at defining the various categories into which team names fall. I’ll be giving a single example in category itemization, but will mention more in the discussions that follow. It will be obvious that some names could fit into more than one category and that my classification scheme is not the only one that might be devised. It should serve to organize the discussion though. My ideas on where the various Native American team names fit into this scheme will be presented in the final post of the series. Here are the first two of my categories, the ones I discuss in this post.

1. Fierce animals and birds

(A) wild predators (Lions, Hawks)
(B) belligerent male herbivores (Bulls)
(C) other combative “domesticated” animals (Bulldogs, Gamecocks)
(D) stinging insects & venomous reptiles (Hornets, Diamondbacks)

2. Totem animals and birds, not noted as fierce

(A) local (Horned Frogs, Orioles)
(B) non-local (Huskies, Owls)
(C) humorous/offbeat (Anteaters)

I haven’t made a survey, but animals and birds would seem to provide the most team names. Since team names are most often meant to present an image that’s intimidating to opponents and inspiring to the team it represents, wild carnivorous beasts and fowls predominate, but the totem-like aspect of the association of a group with an animal can’t be ignored. Some obvious names come to mind in the fierce animal predator category (1A), with some of the names attached to several teams: Detroit Lions; Chicago and Baylor Bears; UCLA and Boston Bruins; Memphis Grizzlies; LSU, Missouri, Auburn, and Detroit Tigers; Cincinnati Bengals; Houston, Brigham Young, and Washington St. Cougars; Carolina, Florida (NHL), and Pitt Panthers; Jacksonville Jaguars; Kentucky and Kansas St. Wildcats; Minnesota Timberwolves; Michigan Wolverines; Florida ‘Gators, to name a few of the current professional and college team names. The prevalence of feline predators is notable, probably due to the suddenness of their attacks. Fierce feathered predators (1A) include: Philadelphia and Boston College Eagles; Atlanta Hawks and Falcons; and Seattle Sea Hawks (Ospreys). These birds, like the wild cats, are also noted for their sudden attacks, and share with them long, sharp claws, which make for an imposing aspect.

Sometimes these animals also have a geographical association with the team, as the ‘Gators with Florida. Historically speaking anyway, most of the North American mammals and birds probably have some geographical connection with the teams whose names they supply. Non-mammalian animal names, such as Gators, for teams are pretty rare, presumably because it’s harder to identify with a Gator than, say, a fellow mammal like a Bear.

Herbivores, both wild and domesticated, if perceived as strong and dangerous, may also be chosen as a team’s fierce animal image (1B), e.g. Chicago Bulls, St. Louis and Fordham Rams, Milwaukee Bucks, and Colorado Buffaloes. Bulls, Rams, and Bucks make the association with aggressive males specific. The Dallas Mavericks, viewed as adult males, rather than calves or generic cattle, could fit into 1B also. Of course my Texas Longhorns, a name with obvious local associations as well, are in this category. I don’t know what their dispositions are like, but those intimidating horns could impale a person or other large mammal, which is why Bevo, the sideline animal, is actually a testosterone-limited steer instead of a bull.

I think other domesticated animals with a reputation for combativeness are worth a separate subcategory (1C). Bulldogs (Georgia) were bred for the cruel sport of bull-baiting and are feared watchdogs today. South Carolina’s Gamecocks are fighting non-predatory birds, though it’s illegal to actually set them on each other for sport these days. I’ll put the Arkansas Razorbacks (feral swine) into 1C, but a case could be made for expanding 1B to include these pigs, since these non-predators are reputedly just mean by nature and were not bred to fight. One could also make a case for putting hawks and falcons in category 1C, given their use in the sport of falconry.

Even more difficult to identify with than the Florida Gator is the Arizona Diamondback (rattlesnake, 1D), but there is again a geographical association, and there’s no denying the things are intimidating. Ditto for the San Jose Sharks (1A), who really don’t have much of a geographical argument in their favor. The Georgia Tech Yellowjackets and Charlotte Hornets (1D) sacrifice all pretense to intelligence to maximize the intimidation factor, in a way that suggests a swarming onslaught. I think I’d rather support a team with a more intelligent animal than a reptile or insect as its namesake, but I suppose one gets used to it. If I can support a team designated by the color of its “Sox,” why not?

A handsome bird such as a Baltimore Oriole (2A), Toronto Blue Jay, or St. Louis Cardinal is sometimes chosen with or without strong local association, instead of a raptor, but never an ugly or overly common bird such as a sparrow. And never a carrion eater, or one whose diet is primarily carrion, anyway. I had assumed Oregon’s Ducks would naturally fit into category 2A or 2B, but a Wikipedia article revealed that the original team name was Webfoots, which referred to some early human settlers, thus corresponding to category 4A (to be revealed in the next post). The image and name of the webfooted bird has taken over, though, and has assumed a totem-like role. I imagine the charming Delaware Blue Hen is a local totem bird (2A). The New Orleans Pelicans are surely local totem birds, as I can recall when Louisiana license plates had a pelican on them. The owl (1A or 2B) is carnivorous and brings death to small animals just as surely as other flying predators, while lacking the speed of the falcon or the grandeur of the eagle. The owl carries a certain mystique associated with silent, nocturnal flight and its supposed wisdom, and Rice and Temple Universities have chosen the owl as their symbol.

My favorite of all bird names belongs to the minor league baseball Toledo Mud Hens (2A). We called coots mud hens in Texas too. I’ve been wishing Toledo could get a major league team just for the name. The Mud Hens may be an exception to the rule I postulated above that no ugly birds would serve for a team name. I knew they had to be a local totem bird, (2A) because how else would they have come up with the name? Wikipedia confirmed that the original ball park was located next to a marsh inhabited by American Coots. The Atlanta Thrashers, formerly an NHL team, were obviously a local totem bird (Georgia’s State bird is the Brown Thrasher) with a tough-sounding name in the context. The U of Texas at San Antonio Roadrunners would seem to fit nicely into category 2A, as roadrunners are plentiful around San Antonio and are not perceived to be fierce. They are a bit like the owl and badger in having a case for technical inclusion in 1A, since they actually prey on lizards, rodents, and snakes, not just insects. But perception is paramount in a team symbol, and the cartoon Roadrunner has formed people’s impression of the bird, at least where it is not native, so some might perceive the name as belonging to category 2C. Anaheim Ducks began as a Disney film tie-in (Mighty Ducks), but have since moved into the totem category (dropping the “Mighty”), as is the natural tendency.

The Beaver of Oregon St. is obviously a geographically linked totem animal (2A) since the State flag of Oregon displays a beaver. Minnesota Gophers (2A or 2C?) is an odd name, since the small rodents are usually viewed as varmints. They gain some prestige (hinting at something magical?) by being called the Golden Gophers, and, I must assume, gophers are plentiful in Minnesota. An alternative breakdown of “non-fierce” totem animals might have been into spirited and placid ones. The Wisconsin Badgers (2B, 1A) don’t sound all that intimidating, though I wouldn’t try reaching into a badger burrow, and they certainly prey on gophers. I imagine they would go into the spirited subcategory, while the gophers and beavers probably wouldn’t. The TCU Horned Frogs (actually lizards) fit the local non-fierce totem category (2A), but their thorny skin and horns do give them an intimidating appearance. To me, as a kid, they were just the “horny toads” we used to pick up by the tail for fun. They puff themselves up to appear more formidable and are known for squirting blood from their eyes to thwart predators. Despite their appearance, they are really about as placid as could be and are less intelligent, even, than gophers.

Unbroken horses like SMU’s Mustangs and Denver’s Broncos can do a lot of damage with their hooves, even if they are less likely to charge than a bull or bison, and they are certainly swift (another prized descriptor for a sports team) and spirited. They might belong in 2A, given the western locations of the teams they symbolize. The committee that chose the name for the Washington Huskies made a rather strained case for its referring to a totem animal with a local connection, saying Seattle was recognized as the “Gateway to the Alaskan frontier,” but I’m calling it non-local (2B). The Husky name replaced the local group reference name Sundodgers, which might belong in the comical made-up name category (7D in later post).

Some relatively recent names are of aquatic animals not normally thought of as fierce, but associated with the area of Florida teams: Miami Marlins, Tampa Bay Rays, and Miami Dolphins. I’d call them all totem animals with a geographical tie (2A). Chicago’s Cubs are the only example that comes to mind of a team named for a baby animal. Since they have not matured yet into fierce predators, I’m putting them in 2B. Wait, what about the Indianapolis Colts? Since they started in Baltimore, I’m thinking they were envisioned as old enough to race, not wobbly foals. The Pittsburgh Penguins of NHL hockey were no doubt chosen for the alliteration, as well as for seeming at home on the ice, but technically they belong to 2B.

There aren’t very many names that belong in the comical or semicomical category 2C. I think they are basically mistakes, as they display a certain contempt for the idea of sports team allegiance. But even for these names, the totem principle asserts itself. Anteaters for example. I have no doubt that the 60‘s choice was meant as a kind of parody choice when selected by student vote, but now they actually have Anteater pride at UC Irvine. Bowdoin once went by the Fighting Pine Trees, but later became Polar Bears. Stanford’s sideline mascot dresses as a tree now, but how long will this last? I had assumed the Tufts Jumbos (circus elephant) must belong in this class, but the truth was a little different. P. T. Barnum was a Tufts alum, and he donated the stuffed actual Jumbo to the school. Supposedly, the coaches and athletes decided to become Jumbos. Unfortunately, the remains of Jumbo were consumed in a fire in 1975. Given the Barnum connection, I think category 2A is appropriate for the Jumbos. I have a problem with a whole team being named after an individual though. UConn Huskies (get it?), as distinguished from the serious totem (quasi local) animal, the Washington Huskies, must have been chosen for the chuckle value originally, but I’m sure it is now a serious totem animal. I can only think of one team using an extinct animal in its name: Toronto Raptors, which doesn’t seem worth making a separate category.

My next post will deal with teams named after fierce warriors or groups associated with regions, exclusive of Native Americans.

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