What’s in a Name?

Published on October 16, 2010 2:12 PM by dbo.

A while back I linked to a story where it was revealed that due to a Saskatchewan Roughrider veto it was unlikely the Ottawa franchise would return with the moniker Rough Riders. In that Single Point link I expressed my displeasure with this and poked some tongue-in-cheek fun at the Roughriders over the decision. This touched off a storm of comments (one, which by CFLdb standards…) supporting the Roughriders decision. While I was aware of the “single Roughrider” supporters and have seen their numbers on comments and forums, it still disappoints me so many people hold this opinion. It embarrasses me to think Canadians feel that not having to explain why two teams have similar names (it is not that hard) is better than being true to the history of our league and our country.

Canadians spend too much time apologizing about our history. We are contrite over our language, our style of government, and our culture among other things. All of these items developed from our unique history and being different does not make them right or wrong. The same can be said for the history of our league, which includes many unique aspects:

  • the first documented game of what would become modern Canadian football played in 1861 at the University of Toronto
  • the oldest gridiron football club in North America, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, who formed as the Hamilton Football Club in 1869
  • the oldest sports franchise in North America with its original name, the Toronto Argonauts (established 1873)
  • an amateur tradition that included championships before there was a Grey Cup
  • while teams suspended operations during World War II, armed forces service teams competed for the Grey Cup
  • the oldest original championship trophy awarded in North America
  • a wealth of clubs, unions and rule changes that evolved into the game and league known today
  • the West pushing for recognition to finally be allowed to challenge for the Grey Cup in 1921, making it a national championship, mirroring other aspects of our society
  • and includes an Ottawa Football Club nicknamed the Rough Riders, formed in 1876

When it comes to the history of our football league in the early days of our country, as it developed pride and bonds in communities and a healthy rivalry between East and West, it should be celebrated. We should celebrate the league’s amateur roots. We should celebrate the origins of the teams and the rules. We should celebrate the champions, the legends and the complete history. The idea of tying the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 with the 2012 Grey Cup is a unique celebration that can only happen in Canada. There is no need to rewrite the history of the league, leaving out parts we are not comfortable with. History provides us with a record of where we’ve come from and needs no sanitizing.

Hollow Arguments

I have yet to hear a convincing argument as to the issue with the Rough Riders and Roughriders co-existing, whether in 1976 or in 2010. I have friends, both Saskatchewan fans and fans of other teams, who support the idea that a single Roughriders team is better for the league. The reaction of ‘Rider fans is natural, “It is our name”, “There is only one Roughriders”, “We are the true Roughriders”. I don’t see how that provides any sole claim to the name and can be considered in the discussion considering the source. I assure Saskatchewan fans that having the Ottawa Rough Riders in the league will not diminish their club in any way just as having the sole ownership of the name the past 14 years has done nothing to enhance their team. A vetoed Rough Riders won’t stop the discussions — “Wasn’t there two Rough Rider teams?”, “Remember when there were two Roughriders?” — that have occurred the past decade and a half.

The arguments from a league perspective are few and ring hollow to me, meaning there are few facts to back them up, but simply opinion stated as fact.

  • it isn’t professional
  • it never should have been allowed, the league should have solved it long ago
  • it’s confusing
  • you just can’t do it

Update: As pointed out in the comments, all of these arguments are thwarted by the Southeastern Conference which has teams with the exact same nicknames (all joining at the same time) without any controversy.

I am not sure how the history of the origins of both clubs joining the same league with similar names has to do with not being professional. Where is this standard of professionalism defined? If two fictional Little League teams, say the Peterborough Pirates and Pickering Pirates, met for the Provincial championship, would one team be forced to change their name? Is the reason because they are amateur clubs? Well, so were both the Ottawa and Regina clubs when they started. Is it because they come from different leagues? Ottawa and Regina were members of different football unions. If others question the CFL‘s professionalism because of this history, and reject the historical circumstances that led to the modern league with Rough Riders and Roughriders, then that is their problem. Changing will do nothing to win them over, they will always point to that period to make their point and you can’t erase history.

Revisionists prefer to make an argument of what the CFL, the football unions which preceded the league or the individual clubs should have done to rectify the solution decades ago and apply that as the solution now. A popular one is Saskatchewan adopted the name during a period when Ottawa relinquished the name for the Senators nickname. This gives the Saskatchewan club the rights to the name. However, this makes a large number of assumptions that things worked in 1924 as they do now. In fact, with teams being in different football unions and not well funded, it is unlikely in any scenario that the teams would have sued over the team nickname, as they didn’t sue each other when Ottawa reverted back to the old name. (While Saskatchewan history books claim the Regina club adopted the name in 1924 after Ottawa relinquished it in the same year, the CFL records Ottawa not adopting the Senators name until 1925). Another is Ottawa may claim the name as being the first to use it, others take the position of commissioner in 1956 or 1958 and make a decision on who gets the name. Any arbitrary date when it should have been decided provides the same revisionist slant; save it for your fantasy leagues. In the universe you live in there was no resolution and the teams co-existed for 70 years.

So the CFC formation in 1956 or the CFL birth in 1958 should have resolved the issue but they didn’t. It wasn’t a big issue. Neither side had the resources to sue (or perhaps no inclination) for the name and it was unclear who would win. Actual discussions among club executives and league officials are lost to history so the details of any nickname debate will never be known. Canadians were not big litigators and so history was set. As time went on, the questions over why two teams have similar names grew on Canadian insecurities. When the tables of size and exposure flipped on the CFL and its southern cousin as the NFL increased its exposure to Canadians, acceptance of these origins switched to unfounded embarrassment.

Next come the people claiming it is confusing to have two similar named clubs in the same league. In the 70 years the teams co-existed, there were plenty of jokes (mostly the same one), but little actual confusion over the two teams. Media and citizens had to work a little harder to identify the team they were referring to (East Riders, West ‘Riders, Riders vs Roughies, Green Riders) but we got along. Canadians are a smart people and to think that these two teams were causing our citizens confusion is ridiculous. The first thing a child used to learn about Canadian Football League teams was there were the Ottawa Rough Riders, with a space, and the Saskatchewan Roughriders, without a space. The child never asked which was which again. This would only continue in the future.

Young people argue you just can’t have two teams named the same (their decision to ignore the space) in a league. The NFL-AFL and NHL-WHA mergers didn’t result in duplicate named teams and if it had, it wouldn’t have been allowed, they say. This is a comparison of very different eras and circumstances and who is to say how they would have handled similar names. It turns out, in Canada at least, a space makes all the difference, and rather than fight each over the name, all parties moved forward with no damages to either side caused by the similar names.

I’m often asked if I would support MLB adding another Red Sox or Dodgers. Of course not, the situation is not even similar with a new club not having any claim to a name in use for decades. If MLB were to return to Montreal and the new owners decided to name the team the Alouettes, I would expect the Montreal Alouettes to vigorously defend their rights against this attempt to benefit from the public perception of their name. None of these compare to the situation in the CFL with the Rough Riders and Roughriders, which provided an opportunity for the two teams to come together and co-exist with no harm to either club. In fact it is a situation so unique that it happened only once and could never happen again. This unique situation in all the world should be returned to active use in the CFL.


Those not in Ottawa like to suggest alternatives names as part of their solutions. Renegades is a good name, they say, or perhaps a new name. This ignores the circumstances in Ottawa. The CFL is returning there for the second time. A name other than the Rough Riders, be it Renegades or another name, has no history in the city and would need 20 years before it will have any sense of tradition to the city. The CFL has tried to provide as many positive criteria for Ottawa to work as it can like strong owners, redeveloped stadium, and a competitive team (hopefully with pending expansion draft rules, though teams are balking at this as well). Saskatchewan is only hurting Ottawa’s chances by forcing a new name on the club. Further objections to a competitive Ottawa club by way of an expansion draft could result in the same result in the nation’s capital and hurt the whole league, including Saskatchewan, but be fatal in Ottawa.

Other compromise suggestions include allowing a retro Rough Rider game with old uniforms once a year. This requires acquiring the intellectual property of the Rough Riders to play one game a year. Other suggestions are to use Ottawa Roughies or Ottawa Riders to alleviate the similarities between the names. But if you are in for a penny, why not be in for a pound?

Following the Book

I see the Saskatchewan Roughriders following the legal book regarding this name battle. Modern sports teams often attack the remotest use of their nickname, across sports and minor leagues in an effort to protect their intellectual property. This is required in the US, where sports teams are huge investments and failure to enforce rights can lead to loss of those rights. I don’t see that as an issue here as precedent has been set in the 38 (or 70) years where the teams did not enforce their rights (assuming one was entitled to sole use of the name). Without a legal challenge, the only thing the Roughriders club has is a veto on admission to the league using the name. The Roughrider board, CEO and legal advisors all believe they are doing the right thing for their club, finally winning the battle just as a professional sports club should.

The thing the Roughriders have missed is the CFL isn’t like other professional sports leagues. Acting corporately like other leagues instead of in a grassroots way is contrary to the whole league’s positioning and the basis of the Roughriders community ownership. The Roughriders have been supported by many people across the country without ties to the province, myself included, during their lean years in lotteries, ticket-thons and donations. Now in a position of well-standing they have the belief they can repay the CFL fans across the country with a self-serving veto on restoring the CFL to its original nine teams. They are protecting themselves from nothing. The precedent was set for too many years to argue that name exclusivity (remembering they are spelled differently) is owed to either club due to the previous lack of action and visible financial harm .

The Roughriders veto really only controls their name competition in the league. Horn Chen still owns the Rough Rider name and logos and can exploit that any way he wishes. Forcing the Ottawa franchisees to purchase those rights for “retro” capabilities (see above) without providing full use of the name will be an expensive purchase the new team may not want to afford. Will Saskatchewan purchase those rights to return them to the CFL fold? It is unclear whether Ottawa Renegade ownership, who considered re-acquiring the Rough Rider name, decided against due to costs or a Saskatchewan veto. Now with ownership willing to make that purchase, Saskatchewan stands in the way of repatriating CFL history.

Instead of following the book, I urge Saskatchewan and all in the league to support the return of the Rough Riders in Ottawa. For all the failings of ownership in Ottawa, it was the league and the board of governors who approved each of those owners and did not have their act together so to allow the last owner to walk off with the intellectual property of the club (there were plenty of ownership changes to allow that property to be entrenched with the league). Supporting the historical name will show pride in the league and indicate to all across the country that history is more important than a petty name battle or whatever this is about for Saskatchewan. A lot would be said about the security the Roughriders have with who they are and the triviality of fixing this problem with a league as colourful as the CFL if they reversed their decision.

What it Will Take

If the Roughriders want to change my mind, they need to provide a credible report on the damages returning a Rough Riders team will cause them. No hand waving about lack of professionalism or confusion. Concrete evidence of the financial harm that an Ottawa Rough Riders team will cause needs to be provided or else we know this is just about winning a 84-year old battle for a name. It puzzles many what this really solves. Even some in Regina believe this is taking the issue a little too seriously.

I will be called a traditionalist who can’t accept progress. For me this isn’t about hanging on to the past for tradition’s sake. It is about the league operating in a non-traditional, un-corporate way I expect and giving Ottawa the best chance to be successful. It is about ensuring Ottawa has 200 years of football history to look back on in 100 years. I don’t see a team with no history being embraced in Ottawa, even with Rough Rider alumni to assist, over the rough patches they are bound to have. The city needs a team with a history of success to build on and capture people. No new name, no matter what is picked can do that like the Rough Riders.

When it comes down to it, what’s in a name? Nothing but a pile of history that Ottawa should continue to build on. It is just a game, it is just a name.

I don’t expect a reversal of decision by the Roughriders or to change the mind of those in the “single Roughriders” camp. However, if you support this position, it wouldn’t hurt to let the Saskatchewan club know your thoughts on the matter and link to this article so more CFL fans get an alternative viewpoint. I don’t think the “co-existing Rough Riders/Roughriders” side has received much consideration in this process.


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What’s in a Name? was published on October 16, 2010 2:12 PM by dbo.

2,799 words.

This article is categorized under Franchises and tagged with ottawa-rough-riders.

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Three Responses to “What’s in a Name?”

  1. The C.F.L. has worked hard in recent years to shake off its "bush league" stigma. Having two teams with the same nickname is "bush". The Ottawa Rough Riders aren't coming back. GET OVER IT !!!

    By Rick Fullerton on October 18, 2010 7:37 AM

  2. Only insecure CFL fans feel having two teams with the same name (which it isn't) is bush.

    Funny, I was watching Auburn/LSU lst weekend, two teams called Tigers in a 12-team conference, and that I know of, it's never been an issue. I wonder if it is when the Georgia Bulldogs play the Mississippi State Bulldogs? 12 teams, two sets of identical names, no problem.

    By CRF on October 30, 2010 8:04 AM

  3. @CRF

    Thanks for adding to the discussion. That is a very relevant example.

    By dbo on October 30, 2010 8:11 AM