25 Aug 2021

Let's have the 'All Whites' debate

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 25 August 2021


New Zealand Football is being criticised as overly woke after putting the All Whites nickname up for discussion. 

*The Detail is in lockdown mode - we're switching from podcasts to explainers while New Zealand is in alert level 4. 

All Whites Supporters

All Whites supporters wearing ... white.  Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

It’s fair to say sports teams don’t have a great record when it comes to conceiving original, sparkling nicknames.

The Italian football team is known as ‘Gli Azzurri’ – sounds flash, but it means ‘The Blues’.

The French are ‘Les Bleus’, which also sounds flash, and ... er ... which also means ‘The Blues’.

The Spanish, to their credit, at least introduce an abstract noun into the equation with ‘La Furia Roja’ or ‘The Red Fury’.

But the Dutch (‘Die Oranje’, or ‘The Orange’), Brazilians (‘Verde-Amarela’, or ‘Green-and-Yellows’) and Mexicans (‘El Tri’ – ‘The Tricolour’) all revert to the mean.

On the bright side, pun very much intended, these all show more invention than the Germans, whose national football side is ubiquitously known as ‘Die Mannschaft’ – ‘The Team’.

Komm schon (Come on).

Of course, calling a team by its colour makes plenty of intuitive sense. If you’re watching a match and don’t know either of the teams, how do you describe it? Well, red versus blue.

Blues team celebrate the try of Mark Telea.
Blues v Highlanders, Sky Super Rugby Trans-Tasman Final. Eden Park, Auckland. New Zealand. Saturday 19 June 2021. © Copyright Photo: Andrew Cornaga / www.photosport.nz

The Blues ... not a particularly original name.  Photo: Photosport Ltd

But a recent announcement by New Zealand Football has raised the hackles of some football fans in Aotearoa: it’s considering changing the team’s nickname.

In a statement, New Zealand Football chief executive Andrew Pragnell said the review of the nickname was prompted by a renewed focus on inclusion and respecting the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi.

“I think they’re doing this because they’ve had a good hard look at the kids who’re playing football … and the adults who are at the highest level. And the diversity that you find at the youngest level is not translating to the highest level,” says sports journalist Jamie Wall.

“That’s been a criticism of NZ football for quite a while now.

“They’ve probably looked at the way other organisations are doing things and said, ‘we need a diversity study done on the way we’re doing things’. And this has been an outcome of it, along with a range of other ones.”

Immediately, the announcement polarised fans and ex-players alike.

But to understand the story’s nuances, it’s necessary to understand the history of the name.

Since 1981, New Zealand’s national team has been known as ‘The All Whites’ – a moniker once again steeped in a woeful lack of imagination.

It traces back to the All Blacks, which have been known as such since the early 1900s.

New Zealand Women celebrate their win with a haka performance over France during the Day 2 of the Women's Fast Four Tournament 2019 in Hamilton.

Black Ferns; All Blacks. It's a winning colour and powerful name.  Photo: PHOTOSPORT

There is an apocryphal story which claims the All Blacks got their nickname purely by accident.

The story goes that a London newspaper during the Originals tour said the team played as if they were ‘all backs’ – which, due to a typographical error, became ‘All Blacks’.

There’s no way to put this delicately – this is wrong. Ron Palenski’s 2003 book Century In Black reveals the explanation is more logical: the team were so-called due to their all black strip.

The name, however, has both stuck and spread to other sports. The majority of New Zealand’s national sports teams have the colour in their nicknames – from the Tall Blacks to the Black Ferns, the Black Caps, the Black Fins (underwater hockey), the Black Sox (softball), and, of course, the Blackjacks (lawn bowls).

In fact, just about every New Zealand sports team has some variation on ‘black’, ‘white’, ‘fern’, or ‘silver’ in its nickname.

In football, black strips were traditionally reserved for referees – in fact, the 1994 World Cup was the first in which other colours were worn by match officials.

Because of this, teams did not wear black, and it therefore wasn’t an option for New Zealand’s national side.

Instead, we traditionally went for a white shirt, with black shorts.

But during the qualification rounds for the 1982 World Cup, the team started a match against Taiwan wearing an all-white strip – a nickname was born.

Of course, the world was a different place in 1981. Many people wouldn’t have batted an eyelid at that sort of name – even if it raises some eyebrows if you’re talking about New Zealand football to an overseas fan.

“It has actually been a thing for a long time”, says sports journalist Jamie Wall.

“Whenever you have to explain it to a foreigner - and I was listening to James McOnie explaining this on SENZ earlier - he said when they were in South Africa for the (2010) World Cup, it was just a conversation they had to try and avoid.

“You’re trying to explain why your team’s called the All Whites. And I think that this is something you have to take into account: they’re looking at this from the perspective of: what do other people, outside New Zealand, think of us?”

At the heart of the issue - and a point justifiably raised by defenders of the name - is that the All Whites moniker is, essentially, innocent.

It isn’t rooted in historical cultural prejudice like the Washington Redskins or Cleveland Indians; nor does it evoke militaristic images like Saracens or the Crusaders.

Washington Redskins quarterback Alex Smith hands the ball off to running back Adrian Peterson, 2018.

Not the Washington Redskins.  Photo: PHOTOSPORT

It is, quite simply, a description of the uniform.

And yet, Wall says, the reality of the situation doesn’t undermine the fact that perception is important.

“And someone’s realised that. It’s refreshing, from a sporting organisation. Usually when there’s a problem, the response is to ignore it. To me, I feel like they’re front-footing it.

“Perhaps they don’t want to change it at all. But at least they can be seen as the ones who said, ‘should we do it?’”

“Look at it for what it is: a bunch of people saying, ‘maybe we can do better here’.

“I’m willing to take that at face value.”

As mentioned earlier, many of New Zealand’s most prominent sports teams have either ‘black’ or ‘white’ in their name.

This has led to some voicing fears that an unnecessary reckoning may be coming to ‘cancel’ all these nicknames, despite none having overtly racist or problematic histories.

Certainly it’s unlikely the New Zealand badminton team would get away with the stunt they pulled in the mid-2000s.

Wall says that’s a valid concern.

“But at the same time, I’ve never been a fan of NZ teams just being a derivative of the All Blacks. It’s quite lazy. The All Whites didn’t really have a choice, it was a nickname people made up for them.

“Because of that, every other New Zealand sports team has felt as though it needed to put some sort of spin on it.

“Whenever the debate about ‘PC gone mad’ comes up, someone says ‘when’s it going to stop?’

“Well, it’ll stop somewhere. But probably not here. I think this probably does need to be at least discussed before you offhandedly say, ’this is ridiculous.’”

And besides, Wall says, The New Zealand Football team being called The Laser Kiwis – as one Twitter commentator suggested – would be pretty rad.

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