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What's in a Name: The Folly of Being a Loyal Pro Sports Fan

03/02/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

My wife, whose interest in sports pretty much begins and ends with the Westminster Dog Show, was wondering at lunch early this week about the Super Bowl. After noting the suspicious lack of pre-extravaganza hype on morning television ("usually they're on every day showing you how to cook chili"), she asked me which teams were playing.

Arizona and Pittsburgh, I told her. Sensing an opportunity to expand her horizons about an event that would consume my Sunday, I quizzed her: Did she know what the Arizona team was called?

"Razorbacks?" she gamely ventured. "Rattlesnakes?" My buzzer sounded. "Oh, I'm sorry," I answered, eyes full of Trebek-ian sympathy. "The correct response was 'who are the Arizona Cardinals.'"

Being a native of Ohio, where the cardinal is the state bird, she was outraged. "Arizona Cardinals," she fumed. "That's crazy. They don't even exist in Arizona, do they?"

They do, I found out later, but as latecomers; the Arizona state bird is the dun-hued cactus wren. My wife had nonetheless exposed one of the dirty secrets of professional sports teams: their complete unworthiness as emblems of city, state or regional identity and pride. Enterprises that blackmail governments to pay for new stadiums and then pick up and leave when rival cities dangle a better deal, they seldom exhibit the love and loyalty bestowed on them by their fans. Teams have no indigenous qualities. Even their names are interchangeable and absurd.

My wife did not know (and cared less) that the Cardinals had for decades been located in St. Louis, and before that in Chicago and Racine, cities in the traditional range of the northern cardinal. The team's history was beside the point. What rightly annoyed her was that a state in the sunbelt had poached an animal not familiar in that habitat to create an unnatural mating of names based purely on expedience.

It was Jerry Seinfeld who observed that allegiance to a team is like "rooting for laundry." In his famous thought experiment, if your team and the opponent swapped jerseys at mid-field before a game, you would still remain loyal to your team's colors and boo players who until then you had worshipped as household gods.

The devotion of fans is indeed partly based as much on a uniform as on the athletes. Logos offer a continuity that a roster, molting yearly or perhaps daily, cannot. Symbols such as a pinstripe on a piece of clothing fosters the illusion of tradition, boosts season ticket sales, and helps secure the team's financial well-being.

But emotional fidelity to a professional sports team is even more irrational and arbitrary than Seinfeld's mordant scenario suggests. As illustrated by the Arizona Cardinals and countless other franchises, a team is an unstable semiotic entity. It consists of two parts: the name of
the place it calls "home" and the nickname chosen for the attribute it wants to project. Either of these can be said to represent the team and each is detachable from the other. The concept is inherently in flux. What appears to be a solid unit of flesh-and-blood players and management is in fact a linguistic fiction. To quote Gertrude Stein, there is no there there.

The NFL's promotion for this year's Super Bowl targets those who like to support underdogs, in this case the Cardinals, with the laughable notion that they are "the oldest continuously run professional football club in America" and one that has not won a championship since 1947.

"Continuously" in this case, however, is a marketing gimmick, a desert mirage. The team that won the NFL championship in 1947 was the Chicago Cardinals. They became the St. Louis Cardinals in 1960 and the Arizona Cardinals in 1988. There has been no unbroken chain of ownership either. The Bidwell family, who bought the Chicago Cardinals in 1932 and has moved the name Cardinals from place to place, were the third owners to adopt the red logo, a symbol that has its origins with the Racine Cardinals of 1901.

Besides, isn't it barbaric to aggrandize owners? Unless somehow we regard teams as slave plantations, in which those who sign the checks brand those who wear their colors with their identity. Trying to connect that long ago Racine club with the present Super Bowl contender is an exercise in specious geneology. A professional sports team is a fluid concept, defined neither by its management or home town, nor by its insignias or players.

Even the Pittsburgh Steelers, owned by the Rooney family since 1933 and an oft-vaunted model of professional sports solidity, began as the Pittsburgh Pirates, the name of the city's baseball team since 1912. The Pirates became the Steelers in 1940 as a tribute to an industry that has by now closed its mills in favor of an economy based on health care, tourism, and shopping malls.

It's interesting to speculate what would happen if the Rooneys, who were rumored several years ago to be looking to unload the team, sold it to someone who moved it to L.A. Would the temptation of its Super Bowl heritage offer so many leverage that the new owner would
feel compelled to call their new team the Los Angeles Steelers?

Scoff if you like but L.A. was never known for its streetcars or its bodies of fresh water either, and it's now home to the Dodgers and Lakers. Professional sports leagues are cluttered with grotesque marriages of place and attribute, the Utah Jazz and Indianapolis Colts along
with the Arizona Cardinals. Owners move teams to new locales to enhance their economic opportunity and the semblance of a tradition, however spurious, can be another asset to exploit.

Many football and basketball fans prefer the college game because teams are more stable. No amount of money (or lack of same) would lead Army or Yale to sell their athletes or nicknames to another school. USC supporters don't have to fear what befell loyalists of the Brooklyn Dodgers or Cleveland Browns, teams that hightailed it out of town under cover of darkness to avoid facing generations of betrayed citizens.

Of course, another option is to embrace the folly of one's own emotional investment in a pro team, feelings often rooted in blood ties of family and birthplace, and the broadcast rights of local radio and television. A pro sports team is a fluid concept, defined neither by its management or home town, nor by its insignias or players. Irrationality is at the heart of interest in the game, for players and fans alike.

Allegiances this weekend for anyone outside Arizona or Pittsburgh may come down to world view. Those who see rupture and dysfunction as an inherent part of the postmodern condition should favor the Cardinals, while those who like continuity (only three head coaches in 40 years) can't do better than the Steelers. May both teams keep it close enough that I'm
not checking out reruns of "Law & Order" by halftime.

Richard B. Woodward is an arts critic in New York.