Ashling O'Connor: Changing Hull's name is fraught with danger – and if Assem Allam needs evidence, he should look at the Washington Redskins
Who knows if a new name would make you a social pariah in 70 years' time?
Friday 17 January 2014
What's in a name? Plenty. It's our very identity, our first point of personal reference and a word that will turn our heads from 100 yards.
So I can understand the affront felt by Hull City fans campaigning against a proposal by the club's owner, Assem Allam, to rename it Hull Tigers, discarding 110 years of tradition in the process. The Egyptian-born businessman, who bailed the club out of a financial crisis, threatened this week to walk away if the Football Association did not grant him his wish.
His reasoning is that the word city is "common" and a "lousy identity", while a tiger – which is characterised by the club mascot Roary – is a symbol of strength. He claims the club has to rebrand to stand out from the pack and advance commercially.
He does have a point in a way – there are six clubs in the Premier League alone with "City" in their name. But adopting the tiger instead is hardly original. The sporting world is littered with homages to the striped big cat from a speedway team in Sheffield to the Bangladeshi cricket team.
Like the tiger, in sport it seems traditional values are also an endangered species. Allam, who bought the club in 2010, has failed to appreciate Hull City's roots despite living locally for more than 40 years. The name dates back to 1904 and has endured so long for a reason.
Start messing with that and you loosen already stretched community ties. If it's that easy to ditch "City", what about the word "Hull"? It is one step on the road to the franchise system in the United States, where teams change their names and their home grounds as often as their underpants.
The NBA is rife with instances of identity crisis, where teams even trade names with each other. The latest is owner Michael Johnson's move to rename the Charlotte Bobcats as the Charlotte Hornets, which was made possible by the New Orleans Hornets' decision to become the Pelicans. Still with me? No? Well, that's what inconsistency does to attention spans.
There are two primary reasons why Allam's proposal is imprudent. The first is that he is doing it for the wrong motivation – to settle a score with the city council over its refusal to sell him the KC Stadium. The second, and it is linked, is that it is entirely whimsical.
If he wants to see the problems that can be created down the line by a rich man's flight of fancy, he should have a chat with Daniel Snyder. The owner of the Washington Redskins faces the opposite dilemma in that he is under pressure to change the team name when he would rather leave it as it is.
For nearly 80 years, the name served the NFL team well. They are known around the world in a way that Allam can only dream of. Now, it is being condemned as a racial pejorative by some Native Americans and civil rights groups campaigning against ethnic stereotyping.
Snyder, who argues the name stands for bravery and is not meant to be offensive, is paying the price of decisions made by a predecessor, George Preston Marshall. The laundry magnate, and a renowned racist, founded the Boston Braves in 1932 before changing the name to Redskins and moving them to Washington after Bostonians failed to be bowled over by the rebrand.
I'm not saying there is a direct parallel between Redskins and Tigers but the broad principle is that words hold a certain connotation in their own time. By approving the name change, the FA would set a precedent that would in the future make it an arbiter of far more than just the rules of football.
Why open a can of worms? Who knows what name would be acceptable now and would make you a social pariah if you uttered it in 70 years' time? It was only 50 years ago that Negro was considered the polite term to describe an African-American.
City may be common but it is safe and inoffensive. It is also the name Hull's football club was given at birth. Allam is a guardian of the club, not its parent. There is a big difference.
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