For 23 years the name Crusaders was a source of nothing but pride in Christchurch.
It was the uncontroversial identity of a franchise that claims, with some justification, to be the most successful non-national professional rugby team in the world.
However, the city was changed forever on March 15 when 50 people were killed and dozens more injured by a suspected white supremacist in a terror attack during Friday prayers at two Christchurch mosques.
And after the wave of self-examination that swept across New Zealand in the wake of the attacks, it looks like there might now be nominative change afoot for the nine-times rugby champions of the southern hemisphere.
The juxtaposition of a city embracing those impacted by the attacks with a nickname that recalls medieval wars between Christians and Muslims was quickly recognised on social media with some calling for the Crusaders to be renamed.
The country’s Sports Minister Grant Robertson said it was a “responsible action” to reconsider the name and the Crusaders, after initially saying it merely reflected “the crusading spirit of this community”, agreed to at least discuss it, but today have announced they will engage with an independent research company to look into a possible name change.
“This is an event that rocked our community and brought some important issues to the fore. One of the contentious issues that has been brought up in the aftermath of the Christchurch attacks is the name of our rugby team – the Crusaders,” BNZ Crusaders CEO Colin Mansbridge said in a statement.
“Because of our desire to be the best we can be and to support our community, we are treating the question around the appropriateness of our brand extremely seriously. We are committed to undertaking a thorough process, taking into account all relevant opinions and, most importantly, we are committed to doing the right thing.”
“In the wake of the Christchurch attacks, it is apparent that the symbolism the club has used, combined with the ‘Crusaders’ name, is offensive to some in the community due to its association with the religious Crusades between Christians and Muslims,” New Zealand Rugby Chief Executive Steve Tew said.
“One thing that has become very clear in the last two weeks is that there are divided opinions on the best way forward for the brand. We understand and appreciate the passionate feedback that we are receiving on both sides of the conversation, and at this stage we are committed to keeping an open mind until the independent research has been done.”
The rebrand will consider retaining the name but dropping the associated imagery with knights and swords, or possible scrapping the whole brand altogether.
“We are asking Research First to look into two possible options moving forward – retaining the ‘Crusaders’ name but changing the branding and associated imagery; or undertaking a complete rebranding, including the name and all imagery.
“Maintaining the status quo in terms of the Crusaders name along with the current imagery of knights on horseback is, in our view, no longer tenable because of the association with the religious Crusades that has now been drawn. That is therefore not one of the options that we will be considering.”
Several fans at the team’s match in Wellington last weekend were of the view that it was “just a name”, albeit one they wanted to keep.
“I think that they have to have a chat to the Muslim community and ask ‘are you okay with this?’,” Scott Wilson, a decorator from Christchurch, told Reuters.
“I don’t think they should change (but) I think it might have been more prudent to think about the name before they adopted it.”
While the name change has been debated widely in the rugby-mad country, Muslim groups have not engaged.
The Federation of Islamic Associations of New Zealand did not respond to requests for comment from Reuters.
The Crusaders name was adopted by the Canterbury Rugby Union and five neighbouring provinces when rugby went professional in 1996 and they were granted a franchise to compete in the competition that became Super Rugby.
New Zealand Rugby made the final decision and chief executive Steve Tew – who in 1996 held a similar post at the Crusaders – said any changes would still need their approval.
The team logo has always featured a sword-wielding knight, while pre-match entertainment at home games has traditionally involved horsemen dressed in chain mail riding around the pitch.
Rebranding an organisation as successful as the Crusaders should not be too challenging as long as it was recognised from the start that they could not please everyone, according to marketing academic and branding consultant Dr. Michael Lee.
“If the team culture is healthy and they do a lot of good things for society and their community then you don’t want to change that. All you do is change the name,” Lee, an Associate Professor at the University of Auckland, told Reuters.
“You still have the same values — you’re a stand-up citizen, do the right thing, help out when needed, all those sorts of values and the brand essence can stay the same, so in this situation, it is really just changing the name.”
The national conversation about underlying racism in New Zealand triggered by the mosque shootings could also help ease any name transition, he added.
“Within the current climate, I can see why this rebranding has a little bit more impetus to it than other brands,” Lee said.
“There are going to be people who are really annoyed … but New Zealand is very open-minded and progressive.”
There looks certain to be at least some change on Saturday when the Crusaders play their first home match since the shootings, with chief executive Colin Mansbridge suggesting the mounted knights would be given the evening off.
“It’s not unequivocal yet, but they’re unlikely to be there and the game will reflect the occasion,” Mansbridge said.
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