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Athlete Names: How do they score?

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Sports writer and guest blogger Josh Tinley analyzes the influence of superstar athlete names on baby naming.

Early last month, the Social Security Administration released its official list of 2010’s most popular baby names. While I don’t really care that Jacob was the most popular name in 2010 for boys and Isabella for girls, I do enjoy playing around on the SSA’s Popular Baby Names website, which lists the thousand most popular boys’ and girls’ names for each year.

After checking the popularity of my children’s names (Malachi was the 163rd most common boys’ name in 2010; neither Meyer nor Resha was in the top 1000), I decided to look into the names of popular athletes to see how many people were naming their children after popular sports stars.

Of course, the data for athlete names such as Michael, Tom, Tim, Maria, and Mia isn’t terribly meaningful. These names are so common that there’s no way to know if parents are naming their children after Michael Jordan, Michael Phelps, Tom Brady, Tim Lincecum, Maria Sharapova, or Mia Hamm. But more unique athlete names yield some interesting results.

Though I was surprised to learn that LeBron has not been among the 1000 most popular baby names in the past decade, I discovered that both Peyton and Kobe have. Peyton peaked in popularity in 2007, the year when Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning was named MVP of Super Bowl XLI. The name was least popular in 2002 and 2003, years in which the Colts performed below expectations. The name Eli made a jump in 2008, the year that began with New York Giants quarterback (and Peyton’s brother) Eli Manning leading his team to a Super Bowl win. (Eli made another jump in 2010. I wonder if the 2010 Elis are the little brothers of the 2007 Peytons.)

It will be interesting to see if Peyton gets a bump in 2011, thanks to Cleveland Browns running back Peyton Hillis. Hillis, a breakout star last season, recently was selected by fans to be on the cover of the Madden 12 video game. If you can make it onto the Madden cover, you can probably make it into the delivery room. Peyton is also a popular girls’ name, but I don’t know if that has anything to do with sports.

Kobe, after a strong showing from 2000 until 2002—the years that Kobe Bryant’s Los Angeles Lakers won the NBA title—fell drastically in 2004. Kobe Bryant was arrested for sexual assault late in 2003. The name had a minor renaissance in 2008, the year the Lakers returned to the NBA Finals.

Danica jumped into the top 1000 in 2005, the year that Ms. Patrick made her Indianapolis 500 debut, finishing fourth and becoming the first woman in the history of the race to lead a lap. Danica ranked 611 in 2005 and rose to 353 in 2006. It has been in the top 500 ever since. (I’m guessing that Danica’s recent popularity has to do with the race car driver and not the actress who played Winnie Cooper.)

The Social Security site has data on the top 1000 baby names per decade going back to the 1880s. It tells us that Kareem, which was not in the top 1000 in the 1960s, was #471 in the 1970s. Basketball great Lew Alcindor changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1971, the same year he won his first NBA title with the Milwaukee Bucks. Ryne came from nowhere to crack the top 1000 in the 1980s (822) and 1990s (904). I suspect this had something to do with Chicago Cubs fans naming their sons after Hall of Fame second baseman Ryne Sandberg. Nice going, Cubs fans. And Shaquille was the 482nd most common baby name in the 1990s, the decade when Shaquille O’Neal became one of the most recognizable basketball players in the world. It had never been in the top 1000 before and hasn’t been since.

But not all athletes, regardless of their ability or popularity, have been able to pass along their names to younger generations.

Though Wilt Chamberlain’s skills on the basketball court were transcendent, Wilton ranked 994 in the 1960s, down from 758 in the 1950s and 610 in the 1940s. It fell out of the top 1000 in the 1970s and hasn’t returned. Likewise, Otto Graham’s Hall of Fame career as a quarterback with the Cleveland Browns couldn’t keep his first name from fading into obscurity. More recently, neither Sidney Crosby (the most promising young hockey player to come along in years) nor Candace Parker (who led Tennessee to two NCAA basketball titles before becoming the WNBA MVP as a rookie) were able to give their respective names a boost. And while Landon has been climbing the baby-name charts, that trend began long before Landon Donovan became a household name as a star for the L.A. Galaxy and the United States World Cup soccer team.

We can’t know for sure how much influence popular athletes have had on baby names without interviewing the parents who have chosen these names. (“Basketball player? We named him after his great uncle Shaquille.”) While my wife and I didn’t give much thought to naming any of our children after athletes*, I think it’s safe to say that a lot of people do. I know a couple who named their son after Brazilian soccer great Romário de Souza Faria, and I’m guessing that the number of kids named Peyton and Danica has something to do with the sports stars of the same name.

* – We may have briefly considered Kwame, in honor of former University of Evansville center and national hero Kwame James.

  A version of this article appeared at Midwest Sports Fans.

Josh Tinley writes for Midwest Sports Fans and is the author of Kneeling in the End Zone: Spiritual Lessons From the World of Sports. He lives in Nashville with his wife, Ashlee, and three children, Meyer, Resha Kate, and Malachi. You can follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/joshtinley.

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