Opposition to racism has been the prime motivation for the change. Understandably, Native Americans did not like having their culture portrayed as simultaneously goofy and war-like. They felt there was more to their heritage than tomahawks and face paint. In response to this, hundreds of teams have changed their nicknames. Some remain. Despite all kinds of opposition including a public denunciation by Hank Aaron, the Atlanta Braves remain the Atlanta Braves. Possibly worse, our nation's capital is represented in the NFL by a team shamefully called, "Redskins." Think about it: the color of someone's skin is the actual name of a team.
I'm not against getting rid of the offensive names. It's just that dubious ones often replace them. The problem is that almost every name might insult somebody. So, how do we find names that conjure up the proper images for sports teams without offending people?
In addition to racism, those in charge have tried to rid sports of sexism. This has resulted in some pretty odd names. For years, the men's athletic teams at the University of South Carolina have been known as, "the Gamecocks." Obviously a gamecock is a male animal. So, as women's sports became bigger at the school, they had to come up with a name for the women's teams. They call them "Lady Gamecocks." What exactly is a lady gamecock?
In the NBA, some people thought the "Washington Bullets" sounded too violent. They changed the name to the "Washington Wizards," thereby offending those who don't believe wizardry is an appropriate image for a sports team. Similarly, how about "Blue Devils," "Red Devils," and "Demons?" There are plenty of people who probably don't want their kids to root for a team whose symbol personifies evil.
What about teams named "Conquerors," "Pirates," or "Marauders?" Do we really want to have teams named for people who killed and plundered? How much longer can the Idaho "Vandals" exist without protest? The "Brewers" promote alcohol, something sports can probably do without. And I'm sure some religious people are offended by teams like the "Monks" of St. Joseph's College or Centre College's "Praying Colonels." However, I guess the Whitman College "Missionaries" are probably good at converting extra points.
There are other names that just don't seem right for all kinds of reasons. The men's baseball team at California State University at Long Beach is called the "Dirtbags." Do the "Runnin' Rebels" of the University of Nevada at Las Vegas imply a cowardly Confederate army? Richland High School in Washington state is near the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, one of the sites involved in producing the first atomic bomb. The nickname for that school? "The Bombers." And the athletes at Yuma High School are known as, the "Criminals."
There are many team names that probably don't offend anybody. But do they really sound like the name of a team you can cheer for? What image does the University of California at Santa Cruz "Banana Slugs" bring to mind? Do the "Purple Cows" of Williams College sound ferocious to you? How about the Amherst Lord Jeffs? Or the Freeport High "Pretzels," or the Washburn University "Ichabods?" What's the cheer for the Teutopolis High School "Wooden Shoes?" – - "Clog 'em?" And are visiting teams really intimidated by Scottsdale Community College's mascot: the "Fighting Artichoke?" I can't help wondering about any team that goes well with vinaigrette.
I don't know what the answer is, but we'll have to work harder to try to come up with names that are not offensive but still evoke an athletic image. The WNBA is trying its best to go with names that don't hurt anybody's feelings. Maybe they're trying too hard. They have a team called, the "Miami Sol." To me, that doesn't sound like a sports team. It sounds like a retired guy who hangs out at a deli.
Lloyd Garver has written for many television shows, ranging from "Sesame Street" to "Family Ties" to "Frasier." He has also read many books, some of them in hardcover.
By Lloyd Garver