Times change, attitudes change and — sometimes, but not always — the nicknames of sports teams change along with them.
The U.S. Patent Office’s decision to cancel six federal trademark registrations the Redskins own on the grounds that the team’s nickname is disparaging to Native Americans may not be enough to compel the team to rename itself. Team owner Daniel Snyder has said repeatedly he never will change the name and the NFL, so far, has stood behind him.
So what’s in a nickname, anyway? Teams have morphed identities for as long as organized sports have existed. The Chicago Cubs, for example, were originally known as the White Stockings (and later the Colts and Orphans, among other names) before settling on their current nickname in 1903.
Some names have a way of sticking with a team, even when logic would suggest otherwise. When the NBA’s New Orleans franchise relocated to Utah in 1979, the team retained the nickname Jazz, though that form of music is hardly associated with Salt Lake City.
Minneapolis’ NBA franchise moved from the land of 10,000 lakes to Los Angeles in 1960, and the Lakers name came along for the ride. The Tennessee Oilers held on to their nickname for two seasons after moving from Houston before changing to the less geographically specific Titans.
Other once-acceptable names become less so as societal attitudes evolve; what once seemed harmless later looks careless and insensitive when viewed in a new light.
Former Notre Dame football coach Ara Parseghian, 91, recalls when his alma mater Miami of Ohio was urged to change its school’s nickname from the Redskins to the RedHawks in 1997.
Parseghian was a two-way back for Miami in 1948 and ’49 and he coached the team from 1950-55 before moving on to Northwestern (1956-63) and Notre Dame (1964-74).
“Even after they passed that (measure), there were still those who always wanted to remain Redskins,” Parseghian said. “Then the RedHawks is what it was changed to. It was very similar to the Washington Redskins owner.
“It didn’t take too long to become accustomed to (the name change), but it was so controversial. Some former players always wanted to be known as Redskins instead of RedHawks. ...
“It was never the intent to offend anybody. (The Washington Redskins) have a stubborn owner.”
Marquette University has had several colorful nicknames, including the Blue and Gold, the Hilltoppers and the Golden Avalanche (go figure). They changed the name to Warriors in 1954, inspired in part by Major League Baseball’s Boston Braves relocating to Milwaukee. At the time the city had a definite theme going — the NBA team was named the Hawks and the minor league hockey team was named the Chiefs. None of those teams still play in Milwaukee today; baseball’s Braves are in Atlanta, as are the NBA’s Hawks (after a stop in St. Louis). The Chiefs lasted only three seasons in the International Hockey League before folding in 1954.
Marquette introduced a cartoonish tomahawk-wielding new mascot, Willy Wampum, in 1961, but he had disappeared by the mid-’70s when the basketball team was rising into a national championship contender. A more restrained logo replaced Willy’s image depicting a warrior in profile.
Marquette dropped Warriors as a nickname for its sports teams in 1993 and chose Golden Eagles over Lightning.
In 2005, the school’s board of trustees considered switching back to Warriors in an effort to recall the school’s glory days as a basketball power. One prominent alumnus and board trustee told the school that he and a fellow trustee were willing to donate $2 million to the school if they would go back to the Warriors nickname.
Thinking better of it, the board decided instead to float another alternative: The Gold.
It was not well received. In fact, it was panned roundly and quickly sunk like the piece of heavy metal it was.
Former Marquette star Dwyane Wade, who was playing for the NBA’s Heat at the time, summed up the feelings of many alumni in an interview with ESPN.
“The Gold?” Wade asked incredulously. “I got to make a phone call to Marquette.”
The school abandoned Gold and stuck with Golden Eagles.
The Cleveland Indians are another story. While the name might not be offensive, the team’s mascot Chief Wahoo, a cartoon caricature of an American Indian, certainly is to many.
On Wednesday, the Cleveland Plain Dealer posted a column headlined: “Washington Redskins trademarks canceled: Should Cleveland’s Chief Wahoo be next?”
Until 1997, the NBA’s Washington Wizards were known as the Bullets. In various interviews on the topic, owner Abe Pollin said he became increasingly uncomfortable with the name in light of the gun violence in Washington.
While the negative connotation of “Bullets” seems to have been a factor in the franchise’s decision to change the nickname, it’s worth noting that they timed the switch to coincide with a move to a new downtown arena.
They held a contest where fans voted on five possible new names (Dragons, Express, Sea Dogs, Stallions and Wizards). A Washington Post editorial: “Except for Sea Dogs, which is simply inexplicable, they look like the output of the same computer programs that create names for new car models and laundry detergents. One other thing they have in common: None of these names has a thing to do with the city.”
“Wizards” was the contest winner, but the choice wasn’t popular with everyone and carried its own share of baggage. The local chapter of the NAACP pointed out the name’s connection to the Ku Klux Klan.
Even after the name was changed, the team wore the old uniforms — the red, white and blue versions and the vintage orange models, both with “Bullets” across the front of the jersey — several times over the course of three seasons as part of the NBA’s “Hardwood Classics” campaign. It’s no secret that the NBA and other pro leagues promote these throwback gimmicks in part to move team merchandise.
The Wizards online store still sells retro “Bullets” jerseys, with Hall-of-Famer Wes Unseld’s number 41. They sell for $109.95 apiece.