WELLINGTON (Reuters) - For 23 years the name Crusaders was a source of nothing but pride in Christchurch, the uncontroversial identity of a franchise that claims, with some justification, to be the most successful non-national professional rugby team in the world.
The city was changed forever on March 15, however, when 50 people were killed and dozens more injured by a suspected white supremacist in shootings during Friday prayers at two Christchurch mosques.
And after the wave of self-examination that swept across New Zealand in the wake of the attacks, it looks like there might now be nominative change afoot for the nine-times rugby champions of the southern hemisphere.
The juxtaposition of a city embracing those impacted by the attacks with a nickname that recalls medieval wars between Christians and Muslims was quickly recognized on social media with some calling for the Crusaders to be renamed.
The country’s Sports Minister Grant Robertson said it was a “responsible action” to reconsider the name and the Crusaders, after initially saying it merely reflected “the crusading spirit of this community”, agreed to at least discuss it.
While the Crusaders told Reuters last week they were still considering a time frame and process, several fans at the team’s match in Wellington last weekend were of the view that it was “just a name”, albeit one they wanted to keep.
“I think that they have to have a chat to the Muslim community and ask ‘are you okay with this?’,” Scott Wilson, a decorator from Christchurch, told Reuters.
“I don’t think they should change (but) I think it might have been more prudent to think about the name before they adopted it.”
While the name change has been debated widely in the rugby-mad country, Muslim groups have not engaged. The Federation of Islamic associations of New Zealand did not respond to requests for comment from Reuters.
The Crusaders name was adopted by the Canterbury Rugby Union and five neighboring provinces when rugby went professional in 1996 and they were granted a franchise to compete in the competition that became Super Rugby.
New Zealand Rugby made the final decision and chief executive Steve Tew — who in 1996 held a similar post at the Crusaders — said any changes would still need their approval.
The team logo has always featured a sword-wielding knight, while pre-match entertainment at home games has traditionally involved horsemen dressed in chain mail riding around the pitch.
This is not the first time the appropriateness of such imagery being used to promote sporting contests in increasingly multicultural western countries has been questioned.
Several collegiate teams in the United States, including Alvernia University and Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania, have jettisoned Crusaders mascots and nicknames in recent years, as did England’s Middlesex Cricket Club in 2008.
Native Americans have also protested against team names and logos in professional American sport that appropriate, or worse mock, their culture.
While baseball’s Atlanta Braves and the National Football League’s Washington Redskins have retained their names and imagery, there has been some change.
Major League Baseball team the Cleveland Indians announced in January that the caricature of a Native American warrior known as “Chief Wahoo” would be removed from their uniforms from the 2019 season.
“OPEN-MINDED AND PROGRESSIVE”
Re-branding an organization as successful as the Crusaders should not be too challenging as long as it was recognized from the start that they could not please everyone, according to marketing academic and branding consultant Dr Michael Lee.
“If the team culture is healthy and they do a lot of good things for society and their community then you don’t want to change that. All you do is change the name,” Lee, an Associate Professor at the University of Auckland, told Reuters.
“You still have the same values — you’re a stand up citizen, do the right thing, help out when needed, all those sorts of values and the brand essence can stay the same, so in this situation it is really just changing the name.”
The national conversation about underlying racism in New Zealand triggered by the mosque shootings could also help ease any name transition, he added.
“Within the current climate, I can see why this rebranding has a little bit more impetus to it than other brands,” Lee said.
“There are going to be people who are really annoyed ... but New Zealand is very open minded and progressive.
“If a top team like the Crusaders did change their name then that would spark a discussion in the rest of the world as to whether they need to address other similar issues.”
Michael Wagteveld, President of the Canterbury Rugby Supporters Club, told Reuters his body would support whatever decision the team made.
There looks certain to be at least some change on Saturday when the Crusaders play their first home match since the shootings, with chief executive Colin Mansbridge suggesting the mounted knights would be given the evening off.
“It’s not unequivocal yet, but they’re unlikely to be there and the game will reflect the occasion,” he told local media last week.
Editing by Nick Mulvenney