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What's in a Name?

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Now that I have purchased a sports franchise, I have to worry about how to brand my business. Most importantly, I need to pick a nickname for the team. A good portion of my income will come from the sale of merchandise -- t-shirts, caps, jackets, uniforms, etc. A catchy logo will certainly help.

It is probably not a good idea to pick a name or logo that insults anyone. Although there might be some fans who are attracted by the prospect of rooting for the Boston [ethnic group], others will rightfully say that such a proposal is foolish at best and disgraceful at worst. I am sure, however, that some will accuse me of political correctness by shunning pejorative stereotypes. I would rather live by the Golden Rule. I would not like to be abused, and so I should not abuse anyone else.

If this is so, why do we countenance nicknames and symbols in existing sports franchises that abuse minority groups? The foremost offender in this regard is Chief Wahoo, the trademarked mascot of the Cleveland Indians. Put aside for a second whether anyone would name a new franchise the "Indians," I certainly would not use as the symbol of my club a degrading, cartoonish figure of a loony Indian with a huge shit-eating grin.

The prevailing myth is that in 1915 the Cleveland fans chose the nickname Indians in a poll conducted by the local newspaper. For years, the club had been named the "Naps" in honor of Napolean Lajoie, the great Hall of Fame second baseman, who played for, and managed, the Clevelanders. When Lajoie left the club, the sports writers in town proposed the name Indians. The Cleveland Leader explained: "In place of the Naps, we'll have the Indians, on the warpath all the time, and eager for scalps to dangle at their belts." Only later did someone suggest that this new name would honor Louis Sockalexis, a Penobscot Indian from Maine, who played for the club for a total of 94 games over three seasons in the 1890s. Sockalexis obviously did not look like Wahoo, who became the team's symbol in 1930s.

There are some who have bonded with Chief Wahoo and would reject this thought out of hand. He was not intended to be discriminatory in any way. He was meant to embody the fun-loving spirit of the Cleveland baseball team. No one is hurt by the frivolity, except, of course, the invisible native peoples of America.

Even if you cannot imagine yourself as a Native American who would find this symbol utterly repulsive, think about your own ethnic or religious group. (We all have one.) Might I use your "stereotype" for my franchise? How about the Boston Jews or the Boston Italians? (No, I wouldn't just call them Jews or Italians, but rather use some derogatory variation. In addition, I would have a logo reflecting the worst characteristics ascribed to your namesake group.) How long would I stay in business? How long should I stay in business?

The Cleveland American League franchise is not the only professional offender. The Washington NFL football team insists on calling itself the "Redskins," and the Atlanta National League franchise encourages fans to use imaginary tomahawks to "scalp" opponents. The best reformers can hope for is that people would be conscious of what they are doing in perpetuating the racism and be willing to accept the same abuse in turn.

The NCAA faced this issue in 2005 with regard to nicknames used by college athletic teams. It banned Native American references and images. It has had remarkable success, because it has unprecedented market power. Using the threat of banning a team from NCAA championships, the Association nudged colleges into the twenty-first century. No more Chief Illiniwek for Illinois or Indians at Stanford University. (Stanford is now known as "the Cardinal," named after the color, and the band's mascot is a tree.)

The one stubborn school has been the University of North Dakota. Tied to its "Fighting Sioux" nickname by the strong ropes of a major donor, UND resisted and sued the NCAA. It solicited support from tribal groups to obtain a "namesake exemption." A settlement was reached in 2007 allowing UND a further period in which to comply with NCAA regulations through securing approval from two tribes for use of the "Fighting Sioux" nickname. As of now, the Standing Rock Sioux tribal council has opposed approval. The NCAA will not let go, nor should it.

What then can be done, if anything, about Cleveland's Chief Wahoo? Commissioner Bud Selig has the power in the "best interest of baseball" to encourage -- or even order -- a change in the mascot logo. Selig has announced that he will retire in 2012. His legacy as the best commissioner in the history of the game will be well served by ending this abomination.

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