Downtown View:The Pitfalls of Symbols

Super Bowl fever brought up the topic of sports design. Surely you have noticed the Super Bowl trophy. Once in awhile someone mentions its shape, but not much. Apparently two prominent football guys sat down in a restaurant and designed it, and Tiffany made it and continues to make it. Maybe the guys who designed it had small “hands” and didn’t realize what they were doing. Much talk centers on how men make better decisions when women are included in the decision-making. This was clearly a time for a woman to weigh in. The design they came up with, seen from a certain way, is a giant, in your face, phallus. It’s amusing. But it is also embarrassing because the guys don’t seem to realize what they have wrought.

Do the players get a copy of the trophy in addition to the ring? If so, I wonder how Giselle, who seems like one of the more level-headed of celebrities, feels about Tom’s haul lying around the house.

The American football trophy is different in its symbolism from other familiar trophies. The Stanley Cup, English football’s Premier League trophy and the World Series trophy are all taller than they are wide, but you’d never decide these trophies were a literal phallic symbol.

Beyond the Super Bowl trophy design, however, are sports graphics in general. Take the Celtics mascot laminated on the floor in the middle of TD Garden. Years ago, when I first saw it, I was puzzled. I recognized it as a leprechaun, but it could also have been interpreted as a stereotype of a drunk and foolish Irishman, an embarrassment to a whole nation of immigrants. Yet Boston was an Irish town. No one seemed to object to this cartoon. Wasn’t anyone insulted?

I had had experience with symbols. I had spent my university years at an institution that eventually retired Chief Illiniwek because this majestic, elegantly clad warrior, impersonated by a former Eagle Scout who danced to Hollywood-style Native American drumming music, was considered an insult to the confederation of Kaskaskia, Cahokia, Peoria and Michigamea tribes, to name a few. Since then opposition to using Native American names for sports teams or images used as mascots grew to the point where most teams relinquished them. Only such teams as the Cleveland Indians, the Washington Redskins and, in Massachusetts, some high schools—think Turners Falls—still carry the names.

While I had mixed feelings about the Chief, that image was never foolish or derogatory. He was tall, robust and manly.

The contrast between majestic Chief Illiniwek and what I thought was the insulting Celtics logo, however, caused me to pay attention to sports mascots and graphics.

Football logos were especially interesting. When I looked at the Patriots’ logo, its “manly” face seemed cartoonish and silly. Its heavy lines reminded me of what a Nazi graphic designer might have drawn. Then I looked more closely. Oh. It was supposed to be a Minuteman, but it didn’t much resemble the graceful statues in either Lexington or Concord. According to the Patriots’ website, the logo, designed in 1993, is called the “Flying Elvis.” Maybe football fans are fine with that inanity, now that it is so old.

The Atlanta Falcons’ logo is even worse in evoking a Nazi symbol. It resembles a side version of the eagle in the emblem of the actual Nazi party. It’s the black stripes that convey the image. How did football logos come to be inspired by Nazis?

Some sports logos are simply baffling. Take a look at the Miami Heat. It’s sort of a complicated fire ball going through a ring. Maybe it means the basketball team is on fire and a player is making a basket. Or maybe it’s simply weird and needs an update. But I have sympathy for the graphic designer. How do you convey heat in a graphic? Sweat? Lethargy? Panting?

Perhaps we have an answer for good names and graphics right at home. John I. Taylor (no relation as far as I know to my husband’s family) decided in 1907 that the red stockings his team wore would inspire its name. That decision prevented future disputes, insulted no one, and allowed a graphic to be designed that was at the same time emblematic as well as rather sweet.

Going back to the Celtics logo, however, are the Irish. This immigrant nationality has been one of the most financially successful of any in America. Once you’ve reached that status, who cares how anyone depicts you?

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