“So, what’s in a name?” When a friend from Wittenberg, who was fairly new to the Buckeye mania of the Midwest, asked me the origin and meaning behind the Ohio State University nickname and mascot I was stumped. I wanted to explain that it isn’t just a tree or a seed, but something far greater; but, I couldn’t find the right words to describe it. This got me thinking about how unique and important college and professional sports teams and their names are to fans. A team name can come to describe a team, a region, and even a worldwide fan base. Ohio State alumni and fans can yell a simple “O-H” about anywhere in the country and almost always elicit the responding “I-O”. Through their athletic dominance and academic prestige, the Buckeyes are one of the best known names and symbols in sports.
It also got me thinking about the differing responses, and even controversies, that nicknames can prompt among fans. I was recently in New Orleans on vacation and used the opportunity to attempt to shed some light on this topic. For some background information, the former New Orleans Hornets of the National Basketball Association recently announced that the team was changing the name to the New Orleans Pelicans. The Hornets name came to the city when the Charlotte Hornets relocated to New Orleans in 2002. Since the announcement, there has been much debate on the topic, with opinions predictably falling all over the spectrum. The pelican, the state bird of Louisiana, has long been an important symbol to New Orleans and the region, with both reasons being cited as influences on the decision. Much of the negativity on the subject has come from a perceived lack of toughness and the unintimidating nature of pelicans.
However, the sports world is riddled with examples of how success can strengthen the bonds between a fan base and a team, no matter how unintimidating or original the name. The Buckeyes are an excellent example of this, as the buckeye, admittedly a simple tree and seed in practice, has become synonymous with a winning tradition that can intimidate even the strongest of opponents. The effect of success on the staying power of a name and franchise has been prominently shown in the NBA, with both the Los Angeles Lakers and Utah Jazz as the prime examples. Both teams kept their respective names when they relocated from different cities, Los Angeles from Minnesota and Utah from New Orleans, and have thrived ever since. The astounding play of the Show Time Lakers, and the 1990’s Jazz behind Karl Malone and John Stockton have cemented the unique franchise names in the hearts of their respective cities, even with the original names not having much meaning to the adoptive cities.
The responses I received in New Orleans when I asked for local opinions were as diverse as the historic city itself. As a law student I met stated, “this is one of the most unique cities in the country, so I find it fitting that it has one of the most meaningful names in sports. The pelican has long been a symbol of the area and has come to define our culture.” Others shared his sentiment, and I began to understand that the pelican is a symbol in New Orleans that signifies the togetherness and unity of a city that has faced hard times throughout its history. This unification has only grown stronger in the years following the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill. Of course, not all the sentiment was positive, as some residents yearned for a name that would strike fear in the hearts of opposing teams. As one man dressed from head to toe in Saints gear put it, “that wouldn’t fly in the NFL”, with seemingly no pun intended.
“What you don’t understand is that it’s not just a bird, it’s our culture, our team… it’s just us.”
I believe that the cab driver who told me this sums the argument up best. That whether a Pelican, a Buckeye, or even a Wolverine, a name and mascot at its best can inspire a fan base, unify a region, and provide fans with a shared identity or culture. A brotherhood where saying, “I’m a Buckeye, or I’m a Pelican” can mean something more than just the team name on the jersey or the final score of a game. This shared identity can provide a unifying force in the toughest of times, such as the Saints after Katrina or the Mets and Yankees after 9/11. While we may not be able to fully explain what our favorite sports teams represent to us individually and why, the best explanation may be that it’s simply a part of us and who we are.