Do you have tickets for the Cowboys game against the Commanders in early October?
Going to the stadium when Rangers host the Guardians at the end of September?
Shakespeare would remind us that a rose by any other name would smell just as good, but these professional sports team nicknames have a scent we don’t know.
Commanders are based in Washington, D.C. We’ve known them as the Redskins since 1933. But years of criticism of a nickname deemed disrespectful to an ethnic group led the NFL franchise to drop the name two years ago. Not ready to immediately transition to a new identity, they stuck to the Washington football team until the new moniker was announced last February.
The transformation of major league baseball club Cleveland from the Indians to the Guardians did not feature such a space. The public disclosure was made in July 2021 to take effect before the current season. The club took a somewhat transitional step three years earlier, dropping its cartoonish mascot, Chief Wahoo.
The practice of giving nicknames to sports teams is mainly a North American phenomenon, while organizations in other continents are generally content with names simply linked to cities or regions such as Manchester United in England or River Plate in Argentina. John Thorn, a respected baseball historian, traced this practice back to newspaper editors in the late 1800s who sought to shorten team references to fit in headlines.
We should have recognized that the Indians name was fading in July 2020, shortly after Redskins was dropped. The team announced that they were considering nickname options following the social unrest experienced across the country, and Terry Francona, the team’s hugely popular manager, endorsed such a move. Said Francona: “It’s time to move on.”
The franchise likely realized that any new name would be met with pushback from longtime fans and scorn from those who saw the whole exercise as too political. Presumably, to avoid such blowback, the early reveal of Watchmen last summer was made via a video narrated by a trusted American personality – Tom Hanks. Who could be offended by the guy who played Mr. Rogers? Who brought Apollo 13 home?
Your Texas Rangers weren’t free from efforts to purge a potentially inappropriate appellation. In June 2020, Chicago Grandstand Columnist Steve Chapman (who grew up in Texas) pointed the finger at Globe Life Field and called for the removal of a name he wrote glorified an entity whose practices years ago were often racist and violent. This happened shortly after the publication of Cult of Glory: The Bold and Brutal History of the Texas Rangers (written by Dallas Morning News former Doug Swanson).
The baseball team immediately distanced itself from its armed namesake, saying the club had established its own identity for nearly 50 years in Arlington. “We condemn racism, bigotry and discrimination in all their forms” was part of the official Rangers response.
The departures of the Redskins and Indians came years after college athletics moved in a similar direction, but with pragmatic consequences. In August 2005, the NCAA announced that schools whose nicknames were deemed “unfriendly” or “abusive” could not hold championship events. Thus began a parade of Native American-related name changes. Among them were the Indians at Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls; they became the Mustangs.
You may have noticed that some names related to Native Americans are still used. Atlanta Braves. Kansas City Chiefs. The Chicago Blackhawks. Florida State University Seminoles. The Braves, Chiefs and Seminoles urge their fans to perform a “tomahawk chop” during games, which adds another layer of vulgarity for some.
In the case of the Florida State moniker, the school essentially presented a clearance slip; the Seminole Tribe of Florida gave their formal consent. The Blackhawks call their name a tribute. The same goes for the Chiefs, although they recently retired their longtime Warpaint horse mascot. Oh, and they also told their cheerleaders to use a closed fist during the chop rather than an open palm.
The Braves came under increased scrutiny after the Cleveland switch, but Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred last fall endorsed both the name and the chop.
“The Native American community is the most important group to decide whether it’s appropriate or not, and they’ve always supported the Braves,” Manfred told reporters.
In response, Paul Newberry, an Atlanta-based sportswriter for the Associated Press, wrote that the extent of the team’s Native American support was “only one tribe in North Carolina.”
Confederate-related nicknames have been similarly disputed for years, perhaps the most prominent being the University of Mississippi Rebels. Their name has endured, but Colonel Reb’s mascot retired in 2003. His replacement is a work in progress – first a bear, then a land shark (not from the old Saturday Night Live sketch).
It is curious that nicknames in other categories that could be considered offensive or inappropriate have not been the subject of any criticism or questioning. We agree with the teams named after Satan? (New Jersey Devils, Duke Blue Devils, DePaul Blue Demons.) Aggressive names are popular even when it comes to natural disasters. Carolina Hurricanes, Colorado Avalanche. Do you remember our first big league football team here, the Dallas Tornado?
What about a man-made disaster in your city? Ownership of Atlanta’s first National Hockey League franchise has oddly been associated with the Flames in reference to General Sherman who burned the city down during the Civil War.
All of these new names evoke cultural trends that go beyond sports. It should come as no surprise that the names on league rosters are changing at a time when so much else about our world is changing: new technologies, fluctuating civil rights, upended political norms, shifting global alliances.
American consciousness is not the same today as it was 75 years ago when Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier. It is progress. Some consider him silly and give him an equally silly label: “woke” or “politically correct.” But defending Chief Wahoo like the Monuments Men is about as absurd as a professional basketball team from Utah called the Jazz (the result of a franchise switch from New Orleans). The team mascots created in the 1960s are not relics from civilization’s golden age. They can change like anything else.
Some of the best nicknames have proven to be ones that have a connection with the fans cheering them on. Steelers. Packers. Cowboys.
Did you know that the American team was originally called the Dallas Rangers? Team officials either didn’t know there would be a conflict with the area’s minor league baseball team at the time, the Dallas-Fort Worth Rangers, or didn’t care. But there was apparently enough confusion after two months to warrant a hasty change and ordering new stationery.
Otherwise, the tousled-haired Jimmy Johnson of the early 1990s would have shouted, “It’s okay, Rangers!”
Jeff Miller was a reporter for the Dallas Morning News from 1987 to 2008 and is now a freelance journalist who has helped ESPN.com, USA Today and Texas Monthly. He wrote this for The Dallas Morning News.
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