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.