American Culture

Fighter jets and paratroopers and black knights, oh my: sports totems as a reflection of militaristic cultural norms

It’s not enough to accept military vehicles, body armor and weaponry from our civilian police. We now have to cheer for it.

by Michael Smith

There was a chapter in a Carl Sagan book from the mid-nineties, Billions and Billions, where he wrote about how totems of North American sports teams had been changing over the years from traditional animals for older clubs — like the Bears, the Tigers, and the Lions — to newer ones more reflective of concerns over atmosphere and the environment — like the Hurricanes, the Avalanche, the Lightning, and the Heat, etc. His point was that we no longer feared animals — there were no more bears in Chicago, after all — so they were no longer acceptable totems for making our team represent power; striking fear into the opposition. Whether or not everyone consciously accepted the reality of climate change in the ’90s, it had become enough of a subconscious concern in our lizard brains that these newer totems felt edgy and fierce.

I think that’s what’s been bothering me about the most recent changes in the NHL. When the Atlanta franchise relocated to Winnipeg a few years back, the team took up the city’s old totem — the Jets — but didn’t adopt the former team’s logo, which was a nod to the jet-setting futurism of the ’70s, or at least what passed for jet-setting futurism in midwestern Canada. I’m sure anyone with a marketing background would dismiss the change as a simple unwillingness on the part of new ownership to pay for the rights to the old logo and a desire on the part of new ownership to get fans to buy merchandise with the new logo.

Still, it was a little troubling that they went with a military fighter jet for the new logo. Likewise, the Florida Panthers changed their logo this off-season. It was due for a makeover as the original logo looked a little sad and ridiculous. The new one, though, is an army crest, drawn up as a tribute to the 101st Airborne — of whom the team’s owner was once an active member.  This week, I was wondering what the new Las Vegas franchise would settle on for a totem when a friend pointed out that the owner desperately wanted to call his club the Black Knights, a reference to his days in the Army.

After the events of this past week and of the post-9/11 reality in general, I can’t help but think these changes represent an unconscious acceptance of the militarization of our communities. Apparently, it’s not enough to accept military vehicles, body armor, and weaponry from our civilian police. We now have to cheer for it.

Las Vegas Black Knights concept uniforms