What’s In A Name?

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Chicago Blackhawks. Washington Redskins. Atlanta Braves. Cleveland Indians. Kansas City Chiefs.

All team nicknames originating from Native American roots. Only one though has created societal discourse over the past year calling for change. That of course is the Washington Redskins. Personally I do not think the Redskins should change their name as society these days has become way too oversensitive to any subject that even broaches controversial. The Redskins moniker has been around for decades and evokes passion and loyalty from legions of fans in the Beltway. Yet only now is this becoming an issue? Say what you want about heightened societal awareness in this day and age, but again I just feel people are too oversensitive towards not wanting to offend any faction of society. To those people I say wake up! You will never appease 100% of the world. Better you understand that now.

So how about the Chicago Blackhawks then? Are they next in the firing line of lobbyists demanding that a team all of a sudden change a name that has been adored for nearly a century. To answer this question we first have to understand the histories of both the Blackhawks’ and Redskins’ names.

The Washington Redskins name was never founded or rooted in a racial epithet. Rather the name was adopted in 1937 to honor former coach Lone Star Dietz, an American Sioux.  So rather than mock, the name actually pays tribute to a group of Native Indians. The Chicago Blackhawks name dates back to 1926. In fact its deeper roots actually go back to the early 1800s beginning with Chief Blackhawk who fought expansion by white settlers into Illinois and other states. The Black Hawks, as they were originally known, were named after the Blackhawk Division of the 333rd Machine Gun Battalion of the 86th Infantry Division during World War I. This batallion was commanded by the Black Hawks’ first owner who nicknamed it after, yes, you guessed it, Chief Blackhawk. So rather than a group of people, the ancestral roots of the Black Hawks’ name actually refers to a person. For the record, the Black Hawks eventually became the Blackhawks after the 1986 season after original documents indicated that the name should have been one word and not two. So if the team was name after a military infantry, why the confounding logo? Well the logo of an Indian warrior was actually designed by the wife of original team owner Frederic McLaughlin.

Why though haven’t we heard any outrage over the Blackhawks name? Back in 2010,  Damien Cox called on the Blackhawks to change their team logo, calling it “racially insensitive” and quipping that “no right-thinking person would name a team after an aboriginal figure these days any more than they would use Muslims or Africans or Chinese or any ethnic group to depict a specific sporting notion.” I do see the other side of the debate on the Redskins dialogue – that the name, rather than referring to a group of people, gives off an image of DESCRIBING a feature of a group of people. This would be no different than a team called the “Blackfaces” or “Brownskins” with corresponding racial logos, which I imagine would create a near riot in today’s oversensitive day and age. But again, if you know the history behind the Redskins name, does such an argument of why the name should be changed really hold any credence?

Back to the Blackhawks then, since that Damien Cox comment we haven’t heard too much in terms of a call for change. The name most people do understand is rooted in a military tribute – which American citizens would never question. The logo would seem to be the biggest issue. To Joe Podlasek of the American Indian Centre, the logo is like one of the grandfathers, and he surmises “would you do that with your grandfather’s picture? Would Take it and throw it on a rug? Walk on it and dance on it”. For the record, the Blackhawks (Justin Bieber be damned) players are careful, and superstitious in general, of not stepping on the team logo. The team does not have mascots dancing around doing traditional Native Indian dances. The fans do not go to the extreme of the tomahawk chant seen at Braves games. Yet the fact that the logo identifies a person rather than a group of people has its own disadvantage. The disadvantage being the risk of the general public identifying an entire racial group by the image of that person, however inaccurate that image may be. And this is where the danger, and call for change, would lie.

As for reasons that the teams resist a name change, well the reason for that would be the reason that dictates much of society: the mighty dollar. A name change would mean new uniforms, new logos, new branding, new mascots, and then updating all of that onto all of the team’s administrative material. A costly undertaking no doubt. But you may be thinking that teams as recent as the New Orleans Pelicans (formerly Hornets), Charlotte Bobcats (soon to be Hornets again) and Washington Wizards (formerly Bullets) have all changed their names within the past two decades. Well the difference as you would surmise is the history, and significant equity, associated with the Redskins and Blackhawks brands. Forbes currently estimates the Redskins as being worth $1.7 billion, sitting #3 in the NFL. The Blackhawks aren’t too shabby, respectively, themselves sitting #4 in the NHL as of November 2012 with an estimated value of $350 million. Decades of history and identification would have to be erased. Not to mention values likely significantly depressed. The logo of the Blackhawks is as entrenched and woven in the identity of teams as is the Yankee pinstripes, the Red Wings’ winged wheel or the Cowboys lone star.  In today’s sports landscapes, it’s arguably more about business and the bottom line than fielding a successful team keeping in line with societal expectations. Sports teams have long passed the line of demonstrating who holds the cards in a public relations battle. They hold the public and cities by the throat. And in the end that leads them to the decision that makes them the most money, which I take absolutely zero issue with.

So as the Redskins name debate rages on, we slowly get a glimpse of the talk that may soon surface with respect to the Chicago Blackhawks. Again I do not think the name should change just because some people are all of a sudden oversensitive. But definitely I do think there is room for healthy dialogue to discuss the merits. Those of you that disagree I’d love to hear your thoughts.

For Hockeyland Canada,

RK, Esq.

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