This is the second installment of my thoughts on the naming of sports teams, leading up to my proposal for dealing with the Washington Redskins name, which will appear a couple of posts later, to universal applause, I’m sure. In my previous blog post, I discussed the very popular use of animals and birds for names and suggested categories into which the names could be organized.
Here are my proposed categories for the next-most popular type of team names, those in which either the fierce animals are replaced by fierce human beings or the less fierce totem-like animals are replaced by people having a special association with the team’s home territory. Team names that are Beings of Good or Evil, though few in number, seem to warrant a category of their own. As before, I give only one example for each subcategory in the list, but mention more in the discussion that follows. I am saving the discussion of the use of names associated with Native Americans, which naturally belong in the categories 3 or 4 below, for a separate treatment in the last post of the series.
3. Fierce fighters from history or myth (non-local)
(A) brave warriors (Spartans)
(B) ruthless plunderers (Raiders)
(C) mythical (Titans)
4. Groups with local associations
(A) historical non-military (Sooners)
(B) historical military (Minutemen)
(C) occupational (Steelers)
(D) representative / emblematic (Texans)
(E) students at the school (Cadets)
5. Beings of Good or Evil
(A) Good (Angels)
(B) Evil (Blue Devils)
I’ve suggested that naming teams after animals is psychologically akin to the choosing of animals as emblems for totem groups. Names based on groups of historical people come closer to actual identification, being roughly equivalent to veneration of heroes or honoring of ancestors. Although most people probably don’t think about it more than they do for teams named after animals, I wonder if this doesn’t unnecessarily elevate some bloodthirsty qualities in the case of fierce fighter names, especially, of course, those of category 3B, with whom no one should want to identify.
Among historical brave warrior names (3A) are the Michigan St. Spartans, USC Trojans, and Holy Cross Crusaders.
There are numerous teams with Native American warrior names, but I’m putting that discussion off for later. It’s really striking how few of the non-Indian warrior names there are. Were the Spartans chosen over their formidable military rivals, the Athenians, because Sparta’s side ultimately won the Peloponnesian War? It’s probably because Athens is more renowned for its philosophers than its fighters, while the severe military culture of the Spartans automatically makes one think of warriors. Winning can’t be the only criterion for being deemed worthy of a team’s name, or how would the Trojans, who lost to the Achaeans, get the honor? Have the Achaeans been left out of naming because they had to use a ruse to conquer Troy? Or is it just because most people would call Troy’s besiegers Greeks, which wouldn’t work as a name due to modern associations that would override any Homeric allusion? Romans can be ruled out on similar grounds. Somehow the Trojans managed also to get a condom brand named after them, so clearly they are the ultimate winners in terms of lasting name recognition.
Some would no doubt object to my including the Crusaders in category 3A, since they are typically viewed these days as early European imperialists, conquering and oppressing the Arabs of the Holy Land, centuries before the next wave of British and French came to dominate the region. In fact, the European knights who waged the Crusades were at a technological disadvantage, but nevertheless managed through their zeal, courage, and battle skills to win and hold a good chunk of territory in the Holy Land for decades. And it should be remembered that the Crusades occurred in the context of centuries-old Arab rule of Portugal and Spain. The clash between the warriors of Islam and Christendom in the Crusades of the Middle Ages went on for almost two centuries, far surpassing in length the wars in which the Trojans and Spartans fought; not to mention the Punic wars between the Romans and Carthaginians (neglected also). Saracens, as the European crusaders called their Arab warrior opponents, might make a good name in the historical warrior category, but it will never be chosen, especially in the context of modern Jihadism. I have to wonder how long the College of the Holy Cross will hold on to the Crusader name.
To the ruthless plunderers category 3B I would assign the Minnesota Vikings, Oakland Raiders, Pittsburgh Pirates, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Idaho Vandals.
I’m sure that, beyond their image of ferocity, part of the attraction of these category 3B names is their association with anarchic freedom and adventure. But this is anarchic freedom with respect to those who are being raped, killed, enslaved, and plundered; and the adventure is in the hunt for new human prey. Someone looking for a name-changing moral crusade (oops, that word!) might want to consider eliminating names of category 3B before going after Native American names equivalent to those of category 3A.
The name Idaho Vandals, while evoking images of juvenile window breakers, makes reference to the “barbarians” that sacked Rome in 455 A.D., an allusion which few are likely to get without help. I wonder why the Vandals were chosen over the Visigoths, who also sacked Rome? Syllable count perhaps. Other invaders that terrorized Europe, such as the Mongols and Huns have also been shut out of the ruthless plunderer name category. As I will say more than once, I think the fewer of these kind of names the better, so I’m not proposing them for new teams.
Given the merciless way the inhabitants of conquered cities were usually treated in ancient times, the distinction between brave historical warriors and ruthless plunderers may seem to rest more on what characteristics the namers have sought to attach to their teams (martial virtues or sheer ferocity, roughly) than to degrees of savagery. But Trojans and Spartans did abide by some rules of war, such as truces for burial of the dead, recognizing places of sanctuary, and keeping (for a while anyway) of treaties, and there was an element of patriotism or a higher cause in their struggles. This sets them apart from marauders like pirates, who were thieving cutthroats out for bloody personal gain and nothing more.
I think the association of a team with fierce human fighters risks taking on their moral shortcomings in a way that identification with blameless wild animals doesn’t. Mythical warriors (3C) such as the New York and San Francisco Giants and the Tennessee Titans are more like animals in that regard. The Houston Oilers (4C), when they moved to Nashville, became the Tennessee Titans (obviously chosen for alliteration, 3C), that name being available because earlier the New York Titans (lame New York Giants imitation, given the location) chose a rhyming name (Jets) when the New York Mets got a MLB franchise.
In the case of local associations, the names are an assertion of local pride, whether in city or in State, at least in the beginning; but sometimes the association fades and the meaning of a name becomes obscure to everyone, eventually coming to mean little beyond the athletic team itself. The transformation of an obscure local group reference into an animal totem sometimes occurs, as I mentioned in the previous blog post on animal names for the case of the Oregon Webfoots (people, 4A) becoming Ducks. Similar examples are mentioned below.
To the category 4A (historical non-military) belong the Oklahoma Sooners; Dallas, Wyoming, and Oklahoma St. Cowboys; Virginia Cavaliers; Texas Rangers; North Carolina Tar Heels; San Francisco 49ers; Philadelphia 76ers; San Diego Padres; New England Patriots (see discussion); Seattle Mariners; Notre Dame Fighting Irish (see discussion); and New York Knickerbockers and Yankees.
The Cavaliers are borderline military. So are the 76ers and Patriots through their ties to the American Revolution. The Cowboys and Mariners could arguably be put in the occupational 4C category, but the historical association seems stronger to me. There are several other team names in category 4 for which the subcategory is not clearcut, but their existence is not sufficient reason to dissolve the boundaries between subcategories, in my mind.
The Sooners were, strictly speaking, cheaters, as they were the early bird homesteaders that went into Oklahoma to claim land well before they were authorized to in 1889, but I guess they get credit for their initiative, and they got to keep the land they claimed. Oklahoma was supposed to be Indian Territory, but there’s nothing unique about that kind of takeback. Given the Oklahoma football team’s success over the decades, Sooners has become a name that defines a team, rather like the Dodgers and Lakers names do, making the historical reference largely irrelevant.
North Carolina’s Tar Heels name seems to be the local equivalent of Hillbillies (and might go into either 4A or 4D depending on whether the historical aspect is emphasized). Similarly, since the Texas Rangers (State law enforcement officers) still exist, they could arguably be paired with Houston’s Texans as representatives of the State in 4D, but I think the historical association is stronger. The 49ers (4A) of San Francisco could evoke the frenzy of a gold rush, but they also are a case where the team has come to define the name rather than the reverse.
The New York Knickerbockers name (Google it) probably fits best into 4A, given its roots in stories of New Amsterdam. Now everyone just says Knicks, and few probably know how the name originated, but I think everyone feels Knicks are somehow New Yorkers. This is just another of the team names that might be placed in either 4A or 4D, depending on how current the usage of the name is deemed in denoting inhabitants of the team’s territory.
It’s hard to say where to put Notre Dame’s Fighting Irish, as it’s a name that brings to mind short-tempered brawlers (who may have had too much to drink) rather than warriors. I think historical association with tough Irish Catholic immigrants is the best way to look at it, making the name a sort of extension of category 4A.
Historical military names (4B) include the Massachusetts Minutemen, Mississippi Rebels, Tennessee Volunteers, and (originally) Kansas Jayhawks.
The U. of Massachusetts Minutemen name is a nice example of 4B. The name was originally the Redmen, but that was wisely abandoned for one having a local historical military connection. The New England Patriots name is in the same general line, though the name Patriots associated with Boston in particular evokes memories of Paul Revere, Sam Adams, and the Boston Tea Partiers, as well as those who fired the shots heard round the world, and I have placed Patriots in 4A. The original Patriots logo, which was sort of comical, showed a guy wearing a three-cornered hat (making it clear that the reference was to the time of the American Revolution) and down in center position with a football. The current logo shows instead the face of a nonexistent comic book superhero “Patriot,” known locally as the “Flying Elvis.” Imagine a whole team of those characters. Ugly vision.
The Rebels of the University of Mississippi are named for those who took up arms in support of secession from the United States in order to preserve the institution of slavery. That is the fact. Of course, many rebels fought bravely and most were not personally slaveholders, but this is a case where courage can’t be separated from the cause it supported. The Civil War does not belong to the forgotten past, and the riots that accompanied the enrollment of the first Black man, James Meredith, at the University in 1962 are a century closer. There is now a statue of Meredith at the University, and the Confederate officer sideline mascot has been transformed into a “Rebel Black Bear,” but the team name remains Rebels, and it should also be retired.
The Kansas Jayhawks name (4B, originally) is a quasi-military historical reference, made even more obscure by the metamorphosis of the Jayhawk into a cartoonish totem bird. The Jayhawks fought on the anti-slavery side in Kansas before the Civil War, and, in reality, may have been more like marauders than minutemen, but they have receded into the mists of history. A mythical bird is now used to depict the Jayhawk, since the totem animal (1A) impulse has once again triumphed, as it did with the Oregon Ducks. The “Jayhawk” does not look much like a hawk. It resembles Heckle and Jeckle, a pair of cartoon magpies, though with a somewhat curved bill, to suggest hawk. It is hard to imagine a large group of these cartoon birds, as the plural of a team name implies.
Names associated with local occupations (4C) include: Pittsburgh Steelers; Purdue Boilermakers; Green Bay Packers; Nebraska Cornhuskers; UTEP Miners; and Edmonton (also in the past, Houston) Oilers.
I would imagine most colleges with occupation-based names gain nothing from them for out-of-state recruiting of athletes. If you grow up in Nebraska, you may take pride in the name, but if you were from California would Cornhuskers be attractive? At least it’s a lot more attractive than the team’s original name of Bugeaters (a local bat, 2A). Still, with enough success, the team defines the name, and the name can become an asset.
In the 4D category I would put the New York Mets and Islanders, Houston Texans, West Virginia Mountaineers, and Ottawa (also in the past, Washington) Senators.
The Senators name sticks out in that group as one that applies only to a small number of the city’s inhabitants, but it doesn’t seem right to file it under occupational. The name is just a way of stating the town is a seat of government, and not just historically.
The name of the New York Mets (4D) is a short form of Metropolitans, which seems quite appropriate for a NYC team, since the shortened form is used when speaking of the Metropolitan Museum or the Metropolitan Opera. Through rhyming imitation, though, the Mets name inspired the unfortunate inanimate object Jets and Nets names.
The Los Angeles Dodgers (originally trolley dodgers) name was a kind of local reference in their early Brooklyn days, but now it’s just a name with a lot of baseball tradition and no particular meaning beyond baseball. Dodgers could be assigned to 4D with an asterisk. The same thing might be said of the Los Angeles Lakers name, which made sense when the team was in Minneapolis.
The Boston MLB team is lucky to have shed Beaneaters, an early 4D name. I assume the Iowa Hawkeyes would originally have gone into 4A or 4D, but following the totem-transformation principle, they are now indistinguishable from hawks (1A), though I can’t say much for the quality of their logo.
College teams named after the members of the student body (4E) include Army Cadets, Navy Midshipmen, and Texas A&M Aggies. The military academies’ students shed those names upon graduation, but an Aggie is an Aggie for life. At least it was so in the past when A&M was all-male and required ROTC, and I imagine it still is for most. I remember hearing an Aggie friend of my (non-Aggie) father say that he had decided there were only two kinds of people in the world: Aggies and non-Aggies.
Beings of Good (5A) include the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and the New Orleans Saints, though both need an asterisk.
While I’ve designated the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim as the example of a team named for Beings of Good (5A), which is technically true, the name may be better suited to an extended view of 4A or 4D, since it comes from the Spanish name for the Ciudad de los Angeles, thus making Angels a historical association, though not with an actual human group, and also emblematic. The New Orleans Saints name is in rather a similar position, since it obviously comes from historical association of the city with the famous jazz hymn, rather than with an actual group of people. Within Catholic Church tradition, I think Saints would be classified as 5A, since no one becomes recognized as a Saint while alive on this Earth, and such recognition requires miracles of intercession to have been made through said Saint, verified to the satisfaction of the Church. The 5A classification probably makes as much sense as any, though I have no idea what is in the mind of New Orleans football fans. As with many teams, the team has come to define the name to the point where the word Saints makes many people think of football, just as Yankees makes them think of baseball.
In category 5B are the Duke Blue Devils, Wake Forest Demon Deacons, Arizona St. Sun Devils, and New Jersey Devils.
Except for one (sort of, supposedly), the teams named for beings of Evil (5B) have no excuse of history or geography to justify their choice. The namers just wanted to symbolically acquire the power of Evil and the ability to inflict the pains of Hell, judging from their team logos. I’m sure this is all meant tongue in cheek and not really thought of for the most part, as is the case of all team names. Still, I think this is a bad idea, even worse than identifying the team with ruthless felons.
The Jersey Devil is supposedly a legendary, chimeric creature said to inhabit the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, but the team logo clearly has horns and a pointed tail on the J of NJ, and the arena “mascot” is made to resemble the traditional depiction of Satan; so whatever the origin of the name, it’s associated with the Evil One or his cohorts now. The Arizona St. logo is a horned, tailed, pitch-forked Devil. Now, for those who don’t believe in supernatural evil powers, the choice of devils for the team name may seem something like the choice of Titans, a mythological sort of unrestrained afflictive force, carrying no more moral responsibility than the choice of blameless animals. I think, however, the strong identification of devils with Evil, whether or not one believes in them, makes them unworthy of providing names to a team. Interestingly, the Duke Blue Devils and Wake Forest Demon Deacons (what a combination!) were, when the names were chosen, at least, schools in close relations with Protestant churches, having loosely used Methodists and Baptists as team names earlier.
The NBA Sacramento Kings don’t fit into any of my categories, and don’t warrant having one of their own. They were the Cincinnati Royals (originally with alliteration in Rochester) before moving to Kansas City, which already had the Kansas City Royals MLB team. Keeping the connection to royalty, while regaining alliteration with the name Kansas City Kings, may have seemed like a no-brainer, but the idea of a whole team consisting of kings seems pretty ludicrous to me. Still, it’s only a little more problematic than one made up solely of chiefs, which Kansas City already had in its NFL team at the time the name was chosen. An opportunity was missed to change the name from Kings when the team moved to Sacramento. I just noticed the Old Dominion Monarchs, so there’s at least one other name like the Kings, but I am not adding a category for hereditary rulers anyway. Whoa, I forgot the Los Angeles Kings NHL team (Stanley Cup Champions!). If I ever revise this analysis (unlikely), I’ll have to think about adding monarchs.
I think that if I were naming a team, I would choose either an animal name, a color identifier, or a local non-military group association, avoiding even a hint of glorifying historical butchery or support for a bad cause. The next installment in this series will deal with team names that are abstractions, forces of nature, or inanimate objects.