Friday, September 05, 2008

Campus Corner: What's in a name?

There's been quite a bit of controversy over the Queen's Athletics and Recreation Department's recent decision to refer to their teams as the "Queen's Gaels" from now on instead of the traditional "Queen's Golden Gaels". For dead-tree edition background on the story, check out my piece in today's Journal or the article Jordan Press wrote for Monday's Kingston Whig-Standard. There's also some solid pieces of the Out of Left Field variety, including Neate's initial post on the rebranding and name change, Neate's post on Monday's football game (which includes some reaction to the name change and Duane's first upset comment on the matter), a satirical press release written by Duane about the next logical step, dropping the "Thigh" from the Oil Thigh*, and Duane's post today suggesting that this is all part of "the modern marketers' pathological need to control every aspect of everything."**

*By the way, I'm completely staggered that some people completely missed the satire, which originally was explained in a tag if you weren't clever enough to clue in from the context, but later saw Neate posting an editor's note in the post and "Satire" in the headline because some people didn't clue in and called the Athletics Department to complain. People, people: please read the whole thing before you lose your cool. Yes, it should have been better-labeled, but I knew it was a fake from the first sentence, and everyone who read the whole thing really should have caught on to the joke. There's a place called conclusions, but jumping off a cliff to get there isn't the greatest idea.

**Does anyone else find it funny that our site's Laurier alumnus (Duane) is far more outraged by the name change than the Queen's alumnus who's the overall site editor (Neate)? Not to come down on Duane for that: he's got just as much right as I do to speak out on Queen's issues, and the outsider perspective is a valuable one, but it just strikes me as odd that he's leading the charge to bring Golden back. Perhaps he's worried that if Queen's drops it, Laurier will follow. If you're looking for outrage on the Queen's end, feel free to tune into the Tyler King Rant (sorry, Offsides) at 4 p.m. ( I'm sure there will be plenty of venting going on there.

Anyway, to my views on the matter. I'm a bit conflicted about this. I can understand why the athletics department decided to make the change, and I think my experience working for the Journal especially helps to show why they thought it might have been needed. In Journal Sports, we generally refer to any Queen's team as either "Queen's", "Gaels", or by their own name (i.e. men's basketball): it's less clumsy than writing out Queen's Golden Gaels five or six times per article, and it allows for some variation. Thus, I can also see why they might think it would be easier to promote a team as "Queen's" or "The Gaels" rather than the "Queen's Golden Gaels". It's also not like they made the decision out of thin air: the rebranding process started in 2006, while John McFarlane was still in charge, and Marketing, Communications and Events Manager Brad Greenwood told me Wednesday that they consulted over 500 people (students, student-athletes, alumni, faculty, staff and several other groups) during the process, though, as Out of Left Field commenter Big V wrote, there's a chance their input was misinterpreted as a desire to eliminate Golden.

Additionally, name changes have happened before: the teams were initially called "The Tricolour", and switched to Golden Gaels in the 1950s. "Golden Gaels" actually started as somewhat of a derogatory term, coined by Whig-Standard reporter Cliff Bowering in 1947 after the football team in their shiny new golden uniforms got pasted 52-3 by Western. However, the university started to embrace it, and it caught on quickly. I bet there was probably a similar controversy to the current one when they tried to officially switch from "Tricolour" to "Golden Gaels", though.

Furthermore, the teams aren't losing all connection with the "golden". Ironically, they're probably more golden than ever, as all teams will wear primarily-golden uniforms at home this year*, a point Athletics and Recreation is trying to emphasize. As Director of Athletics and Recreation Leslie Dal Cin told me Wednesday, "I think we’re actually doing more service to the name now with the strategy we’ve taken to bring the brand to life." That's debatable, but the point is that there is still an element of golden around.

*By the way, the new adidas uniforms look great, and the move to unified home and road colour schemes for all teams is a solid one that should have happened years ago. It was also nice (and unexpected) to hear that the uniforms will be made in Canada: that should help alleviate some of the ethical concerns that were raised around the old Russell uniforms, and it shows that the Athletics Department is willing to respond to student concerns.

With that said, I understand why a lot of alumni are upset, particularly those who played under the "Golden Gaels" name. I wouldn't want to have spent five years of my life toiling for a team that doesn't exist any more due to a name change. Golden Gaels was 61 years old (from first creation, not official adoption) this year: it may be a relatively recent tradition by Queen's standards, but it's still a tradition and it's still been around for a long while.

One of the biggest problems with this change, in my mind, is the way it was done: if Queen's Athletics really wanted to properly change the name, they should have put out a detailed release announcing the change and their reasons for it. At the minimum, they should have included it as a footnote in the release about the rebranding efforts. Instead, they just hinted to various media outlets that they'd prefer to be called "Queen's Gaels", and the announcers started rolling out the "Please welcome your Queen's Gaels" line.* Neate wrote about it last Friday, the Whig explored it further Monday, and we ran it today (our first issue of the fall term, which is why we didn't get it out earlier). Athletics still hasn't even issued a release telling their full side of the story: obviously, both our article and The Whig piece included quotes from key department personnel and tried to be unbiased by giving both sides, but (in my view, at least) it's an important part of public relations that you don't rely solely on the media to tell your side: it's not our job to make your case, only to present it.** Not releasing the information doesn't look good on their part: it makes it seem like more of a secret, elitist decision than was really the case, and as every journalist knows, the appearance of hiding something is often more harmful than anything that's actually being hid (just ask Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton). I don't think Queen's is hiding anything here, as Greenwood and Dal Cin took a lot of time to sit down with me and answer my questions about the change earlier in the process, but that impression may still be out there for other people who are less familiar with the situation. Queen's Athletics has a very popular website and the unlimited space provided by the intertubes: wouldn't it benefit them to explain themselves and their rationale in full without going through the intermediaries of the press? That might help alleviate the volume of angry calls and e-mails Dal Cin's surely been getting all week.

*This is one of the areas where the new name really is a letdown. "Queen's Gaels" sounds terrible over a PA system: it's just begging for more syllables. A two-syllable name gives an announcer nothing to work with.

**This is by no means an indictment of Queen's Communications and Sports Information Officer Mike Grobe, who is both very competent and tremendously helpful to the media. My understanding is that it wasn't his decision. I'm not privy to the department's inner workings though, so I can't tell you why they decided not to put out a release on it.

Thus, arguments can be made both for and against the switch. Personally, I think the proper solution is in the middle. It would have been better to keep Golden as the official name, for use primarily in introductions, in the OUA and CIS directories and box scores. At the same time, they could have gone more in the direction of using "Gaels" exclusively in releases, programs and the like, and it would have been easy to focus branding efforts on both "Queen's" and "Gaels" without completely scratching the Golden. This wouldn't have offended anyone, while still accomplishing most of the same aims. I'm not a huge fan of dropping the Golden, but I can live with Queen's Gaels.

To close, here's the complete e-mail I received from former Queen's and CFL star Jock Climie, who's now a lawyer with Ottawa's Emond Harnden and an analyst with the CFL on TSN (and the best football analyst on TV in my opinion). This was in response to an interview request I sent him for my Journal piece, and large portions of his comments were used in there, but I thought I'd present the whole thing. He makes the anti-Golden argument more persuasively than anyone else I've seen so far, and whether you agree or not, his thoughts are well worth a read. Here they are:

Hi Andrew,
I can give you a few quick thoughts. First, this is the first I've heard of it. And I'm very disappointed by the decision. Some marketing consultant says that a 60 year tradition doesn't make sense and's gone? Why does everything have to be about marketing and branding? And is someone actually claiming that streamlining the university's nickname is going to attract more students? Generate more school pride? So, my big issue with this is why. Change for the sake of change has never made any sense to me. There are some quirky things that should just be allowed to stay quirky. Our golden (most would say yellow) uniforms in years past was one such example. I had many CFL teammates laugh when they saw Queens' uniforms. But I guarantee none of them will ever fail to recognize a Queens football team on TV again. The name "Golden Gaels" was also unique and traditional. There is no good reason to have changed it.
Jock Climie

(Note: the asterisks throughout this post are based on Joe Posnanski's use of the Posterisk. Please read his fantastic blog (now serialized at SI!) or buy his book.)

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