Saturday, February 04, 2006

Houston kicks itself in crotch, soccer-style!


The Washington Redskins' visit to Seattle for the second round of the NFL playoffs occasioned a few more thrusts and parries in the recurring debate over Indian nicknames in sports. Native Americans generally consider such names offensive and dehumanizing, with "Redskins" the worst of the lot. Non-Indian fans, meanwhile, often argue that the names show respect, even reverence, for Indian history and culture -- you know, once you get past the feathered headdresses, the war whoops and the tomahawk chops. I'm not going to send a dog into that hunt, but I would have to believe the nicknames-as-honorifics argument gets pretty strained where this guy is concerned. But whatever.

Disputes like these obviously aren't limited to football. They also aren't limited to Indian names, although those tend to get the most attention. A somewhat similar brouhaha has been bubbling in Houston, where the local Major League Soccer franchise has christened itself Houston 1836. Not the Houston 1836ers, mind you, just Houston 1836. Sort of like a Janet Jackson album. The team says the name was chosen in honor of the year the city of Houston was founded.

Don't laugh. Yes, the young MLS has brought us more than its fair share of nickname absurdities, among them the Kansas City Wiz and the Dallas Burn -- clubs that later changed their names (to the Wizards and FC Dallas) after the urological implications of Wiz-Burn matchups were brought to their attention one too many times. However, putting a year in the name of a soccer club is actually a common practice in Europe, particularly in Germany, home to Hannover 96 and FSV Mainz 05, among others. And Houston is not alone in the MLS in aping the Continental style of futbol nomenclature. For example, Manchester United (the "Red and White") inspired DC United (the "Red and Black"), which isn't so bad, really. On the other hand, the Spanish club Real Madrid similarly inspired Real Salt Lake, which is just nonsense. (Real is Spanish for "royal," making it perfectly apt for a team in the capital of the Kingdom of Spain. Utah has no royalty, save maybe the Osmonds.)

Anyway, the problem with 1836 is that it's also the year that Texas, populated by Americans at the invitation of the Spanish, declared itself independent from Mexico. The chain of events that followed that declaration culminated in Mexico losing half its territory to the United States in the war of 1846-48. This, as you can imagine, is a touchy subject with Mexican patriots, as well as with many proud Mexican-Americans. It follows that Houston's Latino population -- 38 percent of the city, with most of them claiming Mexican ancestry -- was less than impressed with the choice of name. As Jamie Trecker of Fox Soccer Channel wrote:
The team has been excoriated on blogs, on the radio and in the leading daily newspaper. University of Houston professor Raul Ramos, writing a guest editorial in the Chronicle, wondered if the name meant "the team wants Latino [fans] but only on their terms ... leaving your heritage, identity and family at the door."

Rumbo de Houston, a city Hispanic weekly newspaper, slapped the team's logo on the front page with the headline: "AutoGol" ("Own Goal") and dissected the name in a withering editorial that asked archly if the New Orleans Hurricanes were going to be MLS' next franchise ...
I imagine naming a New Orleans team the "Hurricanes" certainly would raise questions of appropriateness. It'd be like ... I don't know ... naming a team in the San Francisco Bay Area the "Earthquakes" or something. And what do you know: The MLS in fact had a team called the San Jose Earthquakes. The name isn't in bad taste now -- but it could be, at any moment. Of course, if a major earthquake struck, people in the Bay Area would have more important things to worry about than the local soccer team. Come to think of it, even without a major earthquake, people in the Bay Area had more important things to worry about than the local soccer team. That's probably why the Earthquakes up and moved to Houston, where they became the 1836. Which brings us back to where we started.

Since the objections to the 1836 name were first raised, there has been a predictable counter-howl objecting to the objections as Political Correctness Run Amok (a phrase I'm really wishing I'd trademarked in 1991). It may be a matter of political correctness, or it may not be. That argument is entirely beside the point. And that point is: Selecting the name "Houston 1836" was an atrocious business decision.

Back to football for a bit: The Washington Redskins don't get a lot of local heat for their name because, frankly, there aren't a whole hell of a lot of Indians in the Mid-Atlantic region. (There once were, but there aren't anymore. It wasn't their choice to go, either.) So objections to "Redskins" are often dismissed by people who'd prefer not to hear them as just more of the same Political Correctness Run Amok™. The team nickname draws significantly more fire in other parts of the country, places where Indians aren't just hypothetical historical figures but flesh-and-blood human beings. If the franchise had to move west for some reason (terrorism?), objections to the name would escalate, as would the cost of ignoring them. Some say you can't put a dollar value on tradition, but when tradition is costing you money, it's easier than you think.

The Kansas City Chiefs, playing in the Midwest, have long since ditched their stereotypical Indian mascot; in fact, they've tried to eliminate Indian iconography altogether, save for the arrowhead logo and stadium name. For another example, look at basketball's Golden State Warriors. The team began life in the East as the Philadelphia Warriors, complete with a regrettable son-of-Chief-Wahoo logo. When the franchise moved to San Francisco, the Indian was replaced with a headdress, and by the 1970s the Indian connotations to the name had disappeared entirely. Today's Warriors logo is some sort of Dungeons & Dragons character.

What does this have to do with Houston 1836? Plenty. If the Washington Redskins were relying on Native Americans to make up a significant portion of their fan base, you can be sure the name would change. Whether Indians should take offense to the nickname is irrelevant. The fact is they do take offense, and a smart business doesn't insult its customers. Similarly, Major League Soccer focuses a large portion of its marketing efforts on the Latino market. For the Houston franchise to succeed, it needs to tap into the fervor for the game among both immigrants and the larger Hispanic community. To select a team name that evokes the defeat of Mexico at the hands of Anglo Americans is an astonishing move. It may be too late for the team to back down -- imagine caving in to P.C. Run Amok™ in Houston -- but it will now have to expend that much extra time, energy and money to win over the fans the franchise should have had behind it from Day One. If this is how soccer runs itself, no wonder it's entering its fourth decade as America's sport of the future.

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