PROLOGUE CASE ONE: THE WASHINGTON SAILORS CASE TWO: THE NEBRASKA CORNHUSKERS CASE THREE: THE MICHIGAN STATE SPARTANS CASE FOUR: THE NOTRE DAME FIGHTING IRISH A note on baseball team names before 1890 CASE FIVE: THE BROOKLYN DODGERS Individual players ' nicknames CASE SIX: THE WASHINGTON SENATORS Nicknames in baseball reference books CASE SEVEN: THE CHICAGO CUBS Observations on the end of crowdsourcing THE WASHINGTON SAILORS (REVISITED) NOTES AND REFERENCES The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.
--L.P. Hartley, The Go-Between (1953)
Look, this isn't about which teams' nicknames or mascots are offensive. If you follow sports, or even if you don't, you've already heard those arguments. If you haven't heard them, they're easy enough to find on the Internet.
Instead, this is about who has the power to change a team's nickname. As we will see, changing a team's nickname today isn't at all what it used to be.
Today, nicknames or mascots (I'll use those two words interchangeably) are almost always chosen by the team's owner, or by school officials in the case of a college team. In the early days of spectator sports, though--roughly from 1890 to 1930--things were different. If a journalist in the early 1900s wanted to change a team's nickname, he simply picked a new name and began using it in his stories about the team. (Or in her stories, of course, but back then it was almost always his.)
To be sure, many of these journalistic nicknames made no impression on fans, and soon disappeared. However, some nicknames proved more catchy or attractive and got repeated by other fans and journalists. The result was an almost Darwinian competition, in which the nicknames that survived were the ones that happened to appeal to the reporters that covered the team and to the fans that followed it. In modern terms, we might say that nicknames were selected by the crowd.
Except among dedicated sports historians, the crowdsourcing of early team nicknames is now largely forgotten. Indeed, many fans today find it hard to imagine how nicknames and mascots could possibly be left to the whims and fluctuations of the market. If nobody (including team officials) had the power to designate one nickname as the team's "official" nickname, how did fans in the 1890s know who to cheer for?
One purpose of this Article is to repair this gap in our imaginations. The Article's seven case studies trace the histories of seven teams--six of them historical, one fictional--that had their nicknames changed by this crowd-based process, when the idea of an "official" team nickname did not yet exist. Plenty of other teams could be added to this list, but seven should be enough to make the point.
In addition, though, a second purpose of this Article is to show how much prevailing attitudes have changed since the early 1900s. The past is indeed a foreign country, and it cannot always be understood just by talking very slowly and loudly, like an American tourist speaking English to a foreigner. My second purpose, therefore, is to make the sepia-toned period from 1890 to 1930 more vivid for modern readers, in the hope that it will begin to seem less foreign.
In furtherance of this aim, the editors of the Stanford Law Review have graciously agreed to a one-time departure from the usual law review practice of peppering every page with ten (or more) footnotes, each one temporarily pulling the reader's attention away from the Article's narrative and back to the year 2015. I am deeply grateful to the Stanford editors for making this exception. Readers who are interested in my sources can still find complete bibliographic references at the end of this Article, in notes for each of the Article's seven Parts. The rest of you can simply enjoy the case studies--both real and fictional--without interruption.
CASE ONE: THE WASHINGTON SAILORS
Madison ("Matty") Evans was born and raised on Maryland's Eastern Shore. He served in the U.S. Navy and attended the University of Maryland before entering the real estate business. Today, he owns the largest holding of commercial real estate in the Washington-Baltimore area. Time magazine would later describe his real estate empire as "the largest African American-owned business that nobody has ever heard of."
Since Mr. Evans is entirely fictional--a figment of my own imagination--his lack of name recognition is not surprising. However, on February 16, 2016 (or perhaps it will be some other date in the near future), Mr. Evans held a press conference in downtown Washington. To the surprise of the small group of reporters who attended, Mr. Evans said that he had changed the name of Washington's professional football team to the Washington Sailors. As he explained it, "Sailors" would honor the region's many naval bases, as well as its historic maritime traditions. Presumably, his own naval service also influenced that choice.
When questioned by reporters, Mr. Evans said that, no, he hadn't purchased the Washington football team. Nor had he asked the National Football League or Daniel Snyder (the team's owner) for permission to change the team's nickname. Instead, Mr. Evans explained that he was changing the nickname that he himself used in talking about the team. From now on, the team would be the Washington Sailors in his own mind, and he hoped other fans would join him in that sentiment.
Reactions to the press conference varied. NFL officials responded cautiously, recognizing Mr. Evans as a wealthy businessman who ought to be treated with respect, especially if there was any chance that his wealth might some day benefit the NFL or its sponsors. Other observers were more skeptical. A television anchor on the Fox Sports Network (who later apologized) referred to Evans as "a self-absorbed nutcase." This prompted ESPN's Keith Olbermann to ask when self-absorption or nuttiness had ever barred anyone from owning a professional football team.
Meanwhile, the New York Times observed that no NFL team had ever had an African American majority owner, and wasn't it time for that to change? Peter King's MMQB blog pointed out that Mr. Evans had not said he was interested in actually purchasing a team. NBC reported that Daniel Snyder had refused previous offers to sell the Washington team, and speculated (citing "sources close to Mr. Snyder") that he would decline any similar offer from Mr. Evans. Newspapers in Jacksonville, Oakland, and San Diego wondered whether Mr. Evans might be persuaded to buy one of the league's less profitable franchises instead.
Mr. Evans did not reply to any of these speculations. Instead, a week later he held another press conference to announce the next move in his campaign. To help fans identify with the Sailors nickname, Evans unveiled designs for new uniforms for the Washington Sailors, as well as a new team logo. The new designs had nautical themes with navy blue and white as their principal colors, to make the cleanest possible break from the team's current colors of burgundy and gold. Evans also announced a complete line of Washington Sailors merchandise, from $20 t-shirts and beer mugs to $300 replica Sailors jerseys. These items were all on sale at his website, WashingtonSailors.com.
For the benefit of casual readers, let me repeat that the events of this case study are fictional. There is no "Washington Sailors" website. As far as I know, Matty Evans doesn't even exist. The quotations attributed earlier to various media figures are the products of my own imagination.
Nevertheless, even though the Evans strategy is fiction, it raises important questions. Questions like, "Could such a strategy possibly succeed?" Or, "What are you, some kind of communist?"
The answer to the second question is that, where sports are concerned, I'm a free-market traditionalist, which is no kind of communist at all. As for the first question--whether the Evans strategy could succeed--the most likely answer is that it would fizzle.
For one thing, while the country at large may be divided over Washington's current nickname, for most people football nicknames are not a hot-button issue. Also, even fans who are uneasy with the current nickname might have little interest in buying merchandise with a logo or a nickname that had never been worn by an actual NFL team. Granted, you can go online today and buy baseball caps with the logo of the "New York Knights," the fictional team that Robert Redford played for in the movie version of Bernard Malamud's novel The Natural. This is presumably a small market, though, and it is hard to imagine Sailors merchandise selling any better.
On the other hand, we live in a world of social media and butterfly effects, and it is easy to imagine developments that might help Mr. Evans succeed. For example, what if young Washington fans took to the blue-and-white Sailors apparel as a way to show support for the team without having to dress like their grandparents? Or what if the next pop superstar began wearing Sailors jerseys at all her concerts? What if some fans in other cities started displaying the Sailors logo as a way to show support for oppressed peoples, a bit like having a "Free Tibet" bumper sticker? Critics might scoff that some of those fans were merely showing their support for political correctness. Either way, though, Sailors merchandise would continue to sell.
Consider, too, that a number of journalists and media outlets already refuse to say Washington's nickname in print or on the air. Instead, they refer to the team simply as "Washington" or "the Washington team." This sort of evasion may be diplomatic, but it can also produce awkward pauses (or convoluted sentence structures) when people who are used to referring to teams by a nickname belatedly realize that the sentence that they are in the middle of is going to need some other way to end. The Evans strategy might therefore be attractive to writers and broadcasters as well. Sometimes it's just...