Eskimos, Redskins and the PR Scrimmage
When Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson answered questions from reporters about whether the Edmonton Eskimos should change their nickname, it would have been easy for him to defend his city and football team. Instead, he had the guts to go the other way and encouraged the team to think about changing its name sooner than later.
Iveson is concerned because Edmonton is hosting the Grey Cup in a year from now and he knows the issue will come up. He also knows it's difficult for politicians to talk about reconciliation in Edmonton when your football team has the name Eskimos.
Less than a week later however, the debate about the name change has disappeared and that's exactly the way the football team likes it.
The "Silence is Golden" PR Strategy
Pro sports teams do not want to change their nicknames. They see great value in their tradition, heritage and brand and feel they’re up giving an immeasurable amount if they change their name. I don’t blame them. Would Apple want to change its name?
Bigger than the brand is the actual cost of a name change. It likely means a new logo, which means new uniforms, merchandise, signage, promotional material, letterhead and a lot more. This isn’t cheap, especially for a team in the Canadian Football League that operates on a tight budget.
It’s extremely rare for pro teams to change their nickname and any change only follows a franchise shift. Even in those cases, the nickname can travel with the team.
Once you understand that, it’s interesting to watch the public relations strategy used by the Edmonton Eskimos and teams like the Washington Redskins, Cleveland Indians, Kansas City Chiefs, Atlanta Braves, Chicago Blackhawks and others. The strategy has been simple – stay as silent as possible, don’t rock he boat and wait for the storm to die down.
Fuel to the Fire
After Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman, who is Metis, said the Eskimos should change their name, the Eskimos responded accordingly saying, ““At this point in time, we are actively engaged in listening to the conversation that people are having around our name. Those conversations are ongoing and we are keenly listening to all input including from our loyal season seat holders and fans.” The Eskimos also said if Bowman has an opinion on the matter, he should share it with the team.
Well, I think he did. The story really didn’t gain traction though until Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson said the Eskimos should consider changing their name. Whoa.
That was a surprise to me. Iveson is a smart guy and he understands when he makes a statement like that it will have an effect. Whether his opinion is supported or rejected, it fans the flame of discussion, something the team doesn’t want.
Eskimo management understands the situation too. Many years ago it removed anything resembling an Eskimo from their marketing. The EE on their jerseys and helmets may even give them an out if they change their nickname to something starting with the letter E, not that it’ll happen anytime soon.
Resistance to Change
Teams like the Edmonton Eskimos know three things are true.
They understand the majority of their fans don’t want the team to change its name. Some do, perhaps even a growing number of their fans would support a name change, but the majority still don’t want a change and don’t see a reason for it. Most own team jerseys, hats and T-shirts, which they wouldn’t be able to wear to games anymore. Sometimes vanity is more important than inclusion.
Teams also know they’ll be supported by the majority of sportswriters and broadcasters and we’ve seen that in recent days too. Many have covered the team for years and they don’t see any reason to change the name. How many writers and broadcasters in Edmonton did articles on this story last week, even though Mayor Iveson said a name change is something to think about? The answer is not many. Zero may work too.
Finally, teams know the odd politician will support a name change and various human rights organizations too, but most of the public won’t, or really doesn’t care enough to have an opinion. Many feel we have far bigger issues to tackle today and move on to the latest sound bite from Trudeau or Tweet from Trump.
To most Edmontonians, Eskimos is a team name and not an old racist moniker. Changing to the Edmonton Inuit isn’t really an option.
The Long Game
The pr tactic of teams with controversial nicknames trying to fly under the radar on the issue will continue for the foreseeable future. They’ve won all the battles so far, but I wonder if they’ll win the war.
A number of universities in the US with nicknames like Redskins and Indians have changed their team names. So far, pro sports teams with names seen by some as racist have refused. I used to go to a high school with the team name of Redmen. The girl's teams were also called Redmen, so we were both racist and sexist in those days.
There’s no question when the teams were named there was never any intention to choose a name that would offend any race or colour. However as the years go by, don’t these nicknames make more and more people uncomfortable?
Many names and descriptions of people, especially minorities, we used to use when I was a kid are now deemed as racist. I remember many years ago when the legendary hockey broadcaster Foster Hewitt remarked about the expansion of hockey by saying “Even the Japs are playing it now.” If he said that today there would be people wanting him thrown out of the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Call it political correctness running wild if you want, but you have to believe the day will come when one of these teams will change their nickname, putting pressure on the others.
Until then, as long as fans and corporations don’t have a problem with a team’s nickname, I don’t expect much to change. It may be uncomfortable for a growing percentage of their fans, but the bottom line is always the bottom line.