Good marketing or blatant ignorance. What’s in a name?

For a country with no wild big cats, Tigers do seem a bit over-represented by sports clubs in the UK.

I get why a team based in South Africa would call themselves the ‘Cheetahs’ as those cats exist in the country.

I get why there is a Cardiff-based team called the ‘Blues’ because they’re awful and make everyone sad.

I get why there’s a Newport-based team called the fire-breathing ‘Dragons’ as arson is a favourite pastime of some locals.

Newcastle Falcons? Sale Sharks? No idea, although having experienced some long weekends travelling on barges around Sale and South West Manchester, only a shark would have the plums to hang around those canals at night. As an aside; Sale have branded their main team Sharks and the academy squad the ‘Jets.’ Only a fool wouldn’t think that they don’t have an annual dance off to prove who’s the toughest gang on the Upper West Side.

For the Welsh teams, having a brand kind of makes sense. Create a new entity representing a ‘Region’ rather than a specific club so as not to alienate some fans. As far as I can remember this was implemented smoothly by all teams from the outset, with maturity, and has not led to any bickering or accusations of incompetence involving the words ‘piss-up’ and ‘brewery.’

For English clubs it’s a mixture of the traditional and the WTF. However one team manages to straddle both categories; the Exeter Chiefs.

Before opinions are let loose, let’s review the history as to how Exeter arrived at this point in their branding history. Formed in the late 1800’s as Exeter Rugby Club they remained as such until 1999 when they rebranded to become known as the Exeter Chiefs. According to some supporters groups the name Chiefs was first used during the 1930’s and its origin, depending on who you listen to, is either a military reference, or simply that their 1st XV were simply the ‘Chief’ team as opposed to the 2nd XV. Regardless if it was for one of those reasons, or some other, there’s no obvious evidence that the meaning of the word ‘Chief’ in relation to Exeter Rugby was intended to be linked to Native American imagery. So how and why did it come to be that the Exeter Chiefs of today have this Native American link?

They now have a Native American image as a logo, club owners parading themselves on the pitch in full Native American-style headdress (or War Bonnets), a large number of fans following suit in the stands, their ‘Tomahawk Chop’ chant ringing around the stands of Sandy Park each home game. Nobody can accuse Exeter of being half-hearted in their approach, however many are accusing them of offending Native Americans, blatant cultural appropriation, and of making a tidy profit out of it too.

Nobody is suggesting that either the Exeter fans or their owners are deliberately aiming to offend anyone or be purposefully disrespectful, but there is an unwillingness to engage on the subject by the club.

Exeter certainly aren’t the first team to have incorporated Native American imagery, names (some would argue offensive nicknames) or historical references into their ‘brand’; the Kansas City Chiefs, Washington Redskins, Atlanta Braves & Cleveland Indians are some of the most high-profile. Yet, without excusing the branding of those teams, they are at least based in the U.S. and will argue some historical linkage based on geography alone. Is it possible that Exeter felt they’d be immune from criticism on this side of the Atlantic, or did they just not think it through at all?

Those U.S. teams face scrutiny on a regular basis to justify why they continue to profit from this imagery and also face pressure from local and national Native American groups and others, to consider the offence this causes. The Washington ‘Redskins’ are facing fierce criticism for continuing the use of their name. While that hasn’t yet resulted in a name change there is at least a high profile conversation going on to highlight why this is an issue for many and raise awareness. This is not yet happening in this country.

The Kansas City Chiefs have made a start to address the issue by engaging directly with local Native American community groups. A statement from the team said:
We have a working group who are all from the Native American community and we’ve talked a lot about what the issues are and what we can address. We together try to attack the problem. The group’s point to us was that all Native Americans want is to be shown respect. We really embraced that. We felt better about it and the group we worked with felt better about it. The next major step we are taking is to create awareness for our fans. Every game we pass out information to our fans so they understand the significance of a headdress. For many fans, when they put on a headdress or paint their faces they are unaware of how that affects (Native American) culture. With a little education and awareness we hope to provide the right information to help them make the right decision. We’ve had a great partnership with Native Americans, and we believe it’s about continuing this partnership, and moving forward together

Hopefully Exeter will come to the same view as Kansas City, that recognition of an issue can be the first step to a resolution. Ignorance shouldn’t be tolerated.

6 comments

I like you guys and your podcast but I find it odd how you’ve picked up this one social issue to campaign on. No doubt the issue of cultural appropriation is worth developing and exploring but you don’t crusade on many others. Your podcast now goes – good rugby chat, good rugby chat, long boring rant on Chiefs name, then I’ve switched off I don’t know what you’re trying to achieve now – we get it, you don’t like how Exeter are called the Chiefs and what goes with it.
Also, why Chiefs only? Why not Saracens (name and head wear)? Harlequins?

I (Lee) didn’t actually write this piece, there are some guys who are writing for the site now who have free rein to put up prices that they feel like writing about. Hence this is here, so it wasn’t commissioned as part of any crusade as such.

I’m glad you like the podcast, and I think to be fair long rants is part of what we do, but we’ve probably gone off about chiefs on the pod about about 3 times in 2 years. I’m more likely to rant about the TMO or missed tackle percentages, I think.

Honestly, I don’t think we’re trying to achieve anything, we just talk about stuff that is important to us at that time, there’s no plan, believe me.

Hi Mike. The piece really isn’t intended to be a crusade against Exeter but as you say the issue of cultural appropriation is worth exploring, especially as it’s rugby-related.

Personally it’s the lack of information from the club and lack of engagement on the subject with the community affected that is most puzzling. Especially when it’s such a well documented, and widely discussed, issue in sport in general. It’s hardly a massive stretch for them to simply reach out and engage is it?

Saracens probably face the same issues with their fez wearing antics… Also Wasps have some explaining to do, what with their army of fans wearing tweed and Barbour jackets, and slagging off catholics.

Bang on, Gareth, and so glad you brought this up. There really is no excuse for Exeter’s blithe intransigence on this topic. As an American, I can attest to the value of the approach Kansas City have taken (they also have the least offensive nickname). The other three have been quite recalcitrant in the face of pretty visible criticism. I detest the tomahawk chop and headdress behavior, and almost threw up with Tony Rowe pranced around in full headdress after they won the title back in May. I cannot understand why a club that otherwise does things right is having such a hard time reckoning with this issue.

Also, hat tip for the West Side Story reference. Well played, sir.

Isn’t the Exeter thing more than cultural appropriation though? They basically ‘copied’ the Florida State University (Seminoles) lock, stock and war chant

What do you reckon?