For some with ideas, name them obsessive Fans were creative in selling their choice

March 26, 1996|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

She's a Baltimore housewife whose political activism begins and ends with voting and a rare letter to a congressional representative. She never calls the talk shows, writes to the newspaper or imposes her views unsolicited on others.

But when Tracey Grimes came up with the perfect name for Baltimore's new NFL team -- Defenders -- she immediately sketched out a star-studded uniform design and started making calls to get the idea to the team.

She was not alone. From devout football fans to people who've never seen a game, it seems everyone has had an idea about what the team should be called and hasn't been shy about saying so.

Letters, calls and faxes have poured into the team, media and state agencies from people who rarely take the trouble to publicly express their views on anything.

"I get more comment on the name than when are the players coming or about draft choices," said David Hopcraft, a spokesman and consultant for the team, which apparently has chosen the name Ravens.

In a world of managed opinions and ill-mannered discourse, the Great Name Debate had become an obsession for people who had given up on having their views heard on weightier issues such as taxes or abortion.

It has been the same way in city after city where a team's name was up for grabs. Twenty years ago, the expansion Seahawks sponsored a citizen poll that received more participants than most elections. A similar poll by The Sun in 1993, when the city was trying to land an NFL expansion team, attracted 22,000 responses.

People take the issue seriously because they sense the team's name will somehow define or refine the image of their city in the minds of outsiders, said George Wilson, a sociology professor at the University of Miami who has studied the sociology of sports.

"This is an issue of identity and it is really important to people. The names given to sports teams are like totemic symbols -- it defines a collective identity," he said.

And it's a topic people feel free to discuss publicly because a team name is essentially inconsequential and, therefore, inoffensive. There is no right or wrong answer.

"Most people feel comfortable talking about something they know about, and nobody knows more about what the name of a team should be than anyone else," Wilson said.

Expressing that opinion gives people a sense of control, he said.

"This is something people can disagree on and yet not take personally, like abortion or politics," Wilson said.

Grimes, 26, said she has been surprised at how open people have been with their opinions on the matter.

"I'm a stay-at-home mom and when I'm out at the mall or at the playground it seems like everyone is talking about it," she said. "Maybe it's something people feel free discussing freely in this politically correct society."

Jim Wolff was an easygoing, cable-splicing technician who had never so much as written a letter to the editor when he contracted team-naming fever three years ago, during Baltimore's failed bid for an NFL expansion team.

During the debate he was struck by an inspiration: the Bobcats, or, as the animals are sometimes known, the Bay Lynx or Bay Cats. He liked the sound, feel and look. And his research showed the medium-sized, copper-colored, tuft-eared cats to be unique to North America and second only to coyotes in numbers in Maryland.

Wolff was soon on a mission. He called radio talk shows. He enlisted an artist to draw sample logos. He mailed, faxed and called the prospective team owners in expansion.

When that failed, he met with the Canadian Football League team. Then he called the Washington Bullets, when they were searching for a new name. He even met with an Orioles official, trying to persuade the team to add a giant bobcat mascot to the familiar Oriole bird at games.

"I'm not really into politics, but I grew up in Baltimore and I love following the Orioles and am an old Colts fan," said Wolff, 49, of Eldersburg.

He picked up the chase again last November when the Browns decided to move here. He put together a mobile collection of bobcat artwork and displayed it on folding tables at several area malls, collecting about 300 signatures in support of the name.

He even persuaded his state delegate to submit a bill in the General Assembly proclaiming the cat the state's official animal. The bill died in committee despite Wolff's personal appeals at a hearing.

He made up pennants, hats and even painted a few surplus Liberty High School football helmets with the logo, and coaxed a Browns secretary into accepting one.

Maryland Stadium Authority chairman John Moag said he has had some persistent name advocates show up at his home, giving him the feeling of being stalked. They've also written and faxed by the thousands, as well as sent in art, buttons, suggested uniform designs and even recordings of team jingles.

David Modell, the son of team owner Art Modell and the team official coordinating the name search, said: "We appreciate them being fans."

He also hopes the interest translates into similar enthusiasm at the box office. He is sending each letter writer a thank-you note and their names are being kept on file for later mailings concerning permanent seat licenses and season tickets.

Pub Date: 3/26/96

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