Team was warned about name
Concerns over use of ‘Tomahawks’ fell on deaf ears
Both the National Basketball League of Canada and Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson warned the owners of Ottawa’s fledgling professional hoops franchise it would be a mistake to call the team the TomaHawks.
Bytown Sports & Entertainment Group didn’t heed the advice, however, and on Wednesday it was scrambling to come up with an alternative after chopping the controversial moniker.
Watson said he was told the name in advance and sensed it wouldn’t go over well. In fact, Watson was so concerned that he skipped the public announcement made right at City Hall Tuesday afternoon.
“I was not supportive of the name that they had brought forward and I was not supportive of the fact that they had not done the proper consultation,” the mayor said Wednesday.
“You know, they go out and say, ‘Well, we’ve consulted people from First Nations,’ but they don’t have the names and they won’t release them and I think it was handled very poorly. I want the team to survive and to thrive and I think it’s a great addition to the city, but they’re not off to a great start.”
The mayor didn’t try to veto the name when he heard it — the basketball team is a private organization and that’s not his place, he said — but Watson said he urged the ownership group to run it past people who’d know better.
“We asked them to go and do consultations and my understanding is they approached the Algonquins of Ontario at the last minute,” he said. “If you’re going to do meaningful and respectful consultations, you can’t do it as an afterthought. You’ve got to do it before.”
The league took a similar position, saying it disagreed with the name but gave the franchise the freedom to make its own choice.
“We told them basketball people may understand it, but those who aren’t basketball fans could find it offensive and you need to be open to that,” league commissioner Andre Levingston said in a phone interview. “We had concerns about it and we made that clear. They made their decision and we saw what happened.”
Team co-owner Gus Takkale said the decision was made to scrap the name late Tuesday after hours of negative feedback.
“I didn’t get any sleep last night, just talking to people, reading emails and stuff like that,” Takkale said Wednesday.
“People are saying, is it a racist name? Is it not a racist name? From my point of view, just posing that question (is enough).
“We want this basketball team to be a permanent fixture in the community and that starts with listening to the fans,” he added.
“Tomahawk” is a term associated with Native American history. Derived from an Algonquian word, tomahawks were tools or weapons traditionally used by First Nations warriors.
Professor John Kelly, who sits on Carleton University’s Task Force on Aboriginal Affairs, said the word can be interpreted as a “racial slur.”
Ian Campeau, the Ojibway man who started a social media campaign urging the Nepean Redskins football club to change their name, said he doesn’t view it as racist, but rather, “culturally appropriating.”
“It’s evoking this idea that we’re warriors who use prehistoric tools,” he said. “It’s just embarrassing.” Despite the widespread public outcry, Takkale said he didn’t want to rush into any decision to drop the moniker. One email in particular changed his mind.
“It said, you are a community leader … and I’m sure you’ll do the right thing,” Takkale recalled. “That’s all it said. It’s really about doing the right thing for me.”
Takkale and his staff at Bytown Sports were back at the drawing board Wednesday afternoon.
They probably won’t have a new name to announce this week, Takkale said, but he doesn’t expect it to take long.
As for the logo, it might not change much — if at all.
“I kind of like the logo,” Takkale said. “A lot of people love the logo so I want to do something … I don’t know yet to be honest.”
Along with TomaHawks, nine other potential names were presented on the team’s Guess the Name Facebook contest in the buildup to Tuesday’s announcement.
Some were decoys, but an Internet database search revealed Takkale owns the domain names for five of them: Wildcats, Riversharks, Rangers, Colonels and Skyhawks, which will almost certainly be considered.
Moving forward, Takkale said he’d like to engage focus groups — something he admits wasn’t really done prior to the first announcement — and hire a communications/ public relations professional to join Bytown’s four-person management team.
But at this point, it’s all about damage control.
“I’m really focused on just making sure this controversy does not really reflect who we are as an organization and who I am as a person,” he said.
Takkale said he has apologized to the First Nations community and others who found the original name offensive, but he maintains it was never meant to be anything more than a basketball reference.
“Our intention was genuine,” Takkale said. “It’s about a dunk.”