In recent news, one can find a host of sports team names challenged by public outcry. Teams ranging from the Washington Redskins to the Ithaca Bombers to the Holy Cross Knights have had tough questions to answer about their selected nicknames and mascots. Yet for the Carolina Hurricanes of the NHL, this scrutiny has been virtually non-existent since the team’s relocation and name change in 1997. Is this surprising given what we know about the connotations of hurricanes? What processes of remembering and forgetting must occur to allow this?
In investigation of the name I decided to go back the team’s beginning to discover the origin of the moniker. An article I found reported on the team’s move from Hartford to Raleigh: “Peter Karmanos, owner of the United States’ smallest-market team, picked up and moved the Hartford Whalers to Raleigh in 1997 under short notice. As a result of the tight timeline, Karmanos named the relocated club instead of holding a contest. The team derived its name from the storm system that frequently hit the area.”
Karmanos was born in Michigan and spent most of his life there. He owned a struggling team facing a lack of identity and significant pressure to root itself in a new community. It is not hard to imagine the midwestern native scrambling for a name and landing on “Hurricanes.” The storms are powerful, well-known, and native to the Carolinas. For a non-Carolinian especially, the
allure of capturing the energy and recognizability of the state’s prominent coastal terror was too much to turn away from. After all, as Joseph Roach notes in Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance, “diaspora tends to put pressure on autochthony.” Entering a new market with an allochthonous team name might have raised questions about whether it was right for locals to embrace the outsider, and by extension what being “within” this community even meant. Carolinians would be more likely to latch onto something that was their own than the unfamiliar abstraction of a “Whaler.” The autochthonous name–though selected by an outsider–would in theory ease the transition to a new regional fanbase.
Despite good intentions, there remains something controversial about naming a sports team after a natural disaster. Hurricanes, for all their awesome and enviable power, ruin many lives, specifically in Carolina. While they can be admired from afar, one must always keep in mind their horrific consequences. Forgetting the significant drawbacks that come along with hurricanes, even if only momentarily while cheering, “Go Hurricanes!” at a professional hockey game, is indicative of a selective invocation. Ralph Ellison, in a quote included at the beginning of Roach’s “Echoes in the Bone” chapter, sums up this sentiment by saying, “That which we remember is, more often than not, that which we would like to have been; or that which we hope to be.” Ellison’s point applies to the idealized memory of hurricanes that Karmanos had in mind. It is desirable to imagine a world where hurricanes are forceful marvels of nature without the ability to kill, destroy, and devastate; but this is not reality. Surely no sports team means to remind its fans of possible misfortunes done to them by the team’s mascot, but by choosing to use a name that is selectively remembered for only its ability to threaten–and not its ability to make good on those threats–this inadvertent effect is inescapable.
This same principle can be applied to the multitude of other sports teams under scrutiny. Some people choose not to forget all connotations while others stand by an idealized memory. More often than not, sports teams names imply some kind of violence, be it dangerous animals (lions, tigers, bears) or humans (warriors, raiders, pirates). Each one has enacted some kind of violence on people at some point in history, but the extent to which this violence has occurred and how recently it has been a threat seem to matter greatly. This is why the Cleveland Cavaliers of the NBA still exist, but the Washington Bullets in the same league underwent a name change in 1997, after it was agreed the name brought to mind high homicide rates in the nation’s capital. Some names the public eye chooses to let be, while others are pressured to change. As this debate continues, society will ceaselessly contest where the line will be drawn between what is okay to be idealized and what is not.