What’s in a (team) name?

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For over a century, virtually every sports team in America has had a nickname of some sort, created to help instill a connection between the team and its supporters or at the very least sell some merchandise.

There are unwritten rules for team names out there like avoiding bland and cliched tropes like “the Wildcats” (thank you, Simpsons), using a letter other than “S” to pluralize a word normally pluralized by “S” (“sox” teams are a grandfathered exception), or creating a nickname tied to a specific place and not changing it after moving (although apparently Utah does have a strong jazz scene), but one unwritten rule is probably more prevalent in this day and age than any other: racist names are not good.

Perhaps the most controversial of these names is the NFL’s Washington Redskins, a nickname so offensive and divisive that many media outlets refuse to use it anymore in their reporting. So, why are some names like that offensive when others that possibly should be, like the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame, considered unoffensive.

The answer to that question might lie with a predominantly Navajo high school in Arizona, whose teams are known as the Redskins. That name is not offensive there because for the students of that school and members of the surrounding community, that is a word that belongs to them and therefore, they have the right to feel one way or another about that word while others outside of that community do not have the same moral privilege.

Indeed, several founding members of Notre Dame were Irish and it was the first President of the Irish Republic who gave his blessing to the name, allowing it to be a moniker that celebrates rather than chides Irishness.


John Singleton Mosby. Courtesy/Library of Congress

This topic came to mind after a friend told me that there are efforts to change the name of the Westford Academy Grey Ghosts, the public high school in a town just outside Lowell.

According to legend, the name came after a contest where students were asked to choose a new nickname for the school’s teams back in the 1950s. The students chose Grey Ghost after a popular television show at the time that follows the exploits of a Confederate soldier: Colonel John Mosby.

While the cause of the Confederacy and the cause of slavery are intertwined, Mosby said as much himself later in life toward people who stated otherwise, he seemed almost ambivalent toward the institution. As a Virginian, his only reason for fighting in the war was a matter of patriotism for his home and the issue of slavery was something that he saw as outside of his control.

Like that high school in Arizona, the question of whether it is appropriate to honor any Confederate, even one that does not meet the typical stereotype of a Confederate like Mosby, in such a way is a question that should be decided by those who hold the moral privilege to do so. To those of us not impacted directly by such connotations, perhaps the best we can do is provide facts and hope a civil discussion arises that can potentially create greater understanding between those who might see that nickname in different ways.

However, if the name is changed, hopefully there’s something better out there than “Wildcats.”

About Andrew Sylvia 1717 Articles
Born and raised in the Granite State, Andrew Sylvia has written approximately 10,000 pieces over his career for outlets across Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont. On top of that, he's a licensed notary and license to sell property, casualty and life insurance, he's been a USSF trained youth soccer and futsal referee for the past six years and he can name over 60 national flags in under 60 seconds according to that flag game app he has on his phone, which makes sense because he also has a bachelor's degree in geography (like Michael Jordan). He can also type over 100 words a minute on a good day.