Inclusion can start with an umlaut
I thought about changing my name to fit in. Now I’m glad I didn’t.
I almost changed my name to Adam.
Not legally – I wasn’t completely despondent about having a weird-sounding name. But 10 years ago I almost abandoned Arda professionally. As I was editing my resume, I typed out the name “Adam,” just to see what it would look like, how it would feel, as if I was trying on a bomber jacket at the mall. I stared at “Adam” for a good 10 minutes as a wave of thoughts washed through me.
There were two primary reasons I considered changing my name. The first was job-related: I didn’t want to be seen as too “ethnic” to hire. I was inspired by reading an interview with Kal Penn in The New York Times in which he said he changed his name partly as a joke with his friends, but also because he was curious to see if it would help him get auditions. Kalpen Modi became Kal Penn.
A stage name isn’t uncommon in show business, and at the time I was struggling to knock down doors in broadcasting. Maybe “Adam” wouldn’t get his demo tape tossed in the trash and make a better first impression on paper than Arda.
The other reason, maybe the deeper psychological one, was that for a long time, I was scared to be different. Someone living in North America probably meets only one or two people with my name in their lifetime. Ninety-nine percent of North Americans get my name wrong on the first try. Ardo, Ardy, Arnold, Marta (that last one is why I stopped saying “I’m Arda”), you name it, I’ve heard it. Frankly, I was tired of the negative side effects — bullying, feeling like a castaway, loneliness. My name wasn’t the only reason, but certainly the gateway for those feelings. Especially growing up.
My parents are immigrants. My father grew up poor in a Turkish village and wished for a better life, the American dream that many immigrants seek. After attending a military high school, he went to college and stopped his master’s degree program midway after seeing a poster for Canada and deciding to move to a country he knew little about and could barely pronounce. (I always felt like he was pushing me to complete a master’s degree because he never finished, but that’s a story for another day.) Soon after, he married my mother and they both settled into life in Toronto. Partly to blend in and partly for business reasons, my dad also changed his name. Ali Saldiray became “Sal.” Sal was on his business card. Sal was in the Yellow Pages.
I grew up an only child — lonely at times, but in a loving home. I was almost always the only Muslim or Middle Eastern kid at school. Or on the hockey team. Or in karate class. If on the off chance there were others, you could count them on one hand.
This was a theme throughout my life — if I met another Turkish or Muslim person, it was an event. You exist! You’re out there! As a kid, I would stay after the movie was over to look for Turkish or Muslim names in the credits. When social media started to become a thing, I tried to reach out on Myspace to some of those people working in film or TV (shout-out to Tom, everyone’s friend). In retrospect, social media was probably too new at the time to make industry connections in that way. I only got one or two responses. It’s a lot more commonplace now. But really I was doing this for deeper reasons — a sense of pride in their achievement and a search for inspiration.
When I was younger, I didn’t have many role models with my background — it was pretty much Muhammad Ali. Don’t get me wrong, Ali is a big one, and he’s done more to demonstrate and teach the peaceful nature of Islam to the world than anyone you could think of. But other than him, it was slim pickings: Hakeem Olajuwon, a few soccer players and that’s about it. I got used to watching the NHL and never seeing anything close to my last name on the back of a jersey. There weren’t many Ardas in sports, either. The most famous example today is Turkish soccer player Arda Turan, who used to play for Barcelona. Believe it or not, there was an Arda Bowser, who was the first NFL player to use a kicking tee and won an NFL championship in 1922 with the Canton Bulldogs. “Ard” grew up in Pennsylvania as the son of a Baptist minister.
It was much worse watching movies or pro wrestling, where Middle Eastern people were always depicted as terrorists or evil henchmen. In 1991, one of the main story lines in the WWF leading up to WrestleMania involved former good guy Sgt. Slaughter turning evil and becoming an “Iraqi sympathizer.” (He was flanked by an actual Iraqi wrestler, Gen. Adnan, who would yell in Arabic, sprinkling in the occasional Muslim prayer or greeting for what one can only assume was to create the illusion of “authenticity.”)
Slaughter faced off with the American hero, Hulk Hogan, and lost, obviously. This happened as the Gulf War was unfolding, which didn’t help improve public opinion of Muslims and Middle Easterners in North America.
My father was always concerned about how people would view me, from bullies in the playground to trolls on social media. Anti-Islam bias, unfortunately, is sometimes passed down like family heirlooms. He would always tell me to hide my identity, especially being Muslim, because nothing good could come of it: “You don’t want people to judge you just because of your background, no matter how good of a person you are.” My father never told me of any encounters with Islamophobia in his own life, but he didn’t need to; it always felt like there was a scar from the past that had never healed.
I struggled with this conundrum of belonging for many years. For every good interaction, I felt like a negative one could be just around the corner. After 9/11 happened, things got pretty dire. Several years later, I had an experience that led me to consider becoming “Adam.”
I had just started hosting my own show, making a luxurious $50 per day (!). Walking the halls of the studio, I heard two colleagues say my name loud enough that it came around the corner. Curiosity overcame me, and I stopped. A part of me felt guilty because I was about to eavesdrop on a conversation that maybe I wasn’t supposed to hear.
What they said next has stuck with me to this day.
“Watch out, that terrorist might blow up the place!”
“Yeah, you can’t trust a sand n—–!”
I was crushed. I immediately turned around and walked back from where I came. I didn’t see their faces, but I knew their voices (and worked with them for years following that incident). I was shocked, heartbroken and irate, all at the same time. Dozens of thoughts flooded my mind. The audacity! Who did they think they were? Why were they thinking of me like this? I’d gone out of my way to be especially kind to everyone here! Is this what people think of me behind my back, just because of my cultural background? It felt like I got stabbed in the back and it went right through the heart.
I never did anything about it, partly because I didn’t want anyone to get fired and partly because I was too scared (maybe because of youth, inexperience, social climate – pick your poison).
Soon after, I was sitting in front of that monitor staring at “Adam.” But the more I looked at it, the more I believed that changing my name, after everything I had been through, would be a sign of defeat. I hit the backspace key and erased the thought of “Adam.”
Ironically, much later in my career, I was required to change my name professionally when I joined WWE in 2014. Arda Öcal became Kyle Edwards — the most ethnic-sounding name in broadcasting became the least ethnic sounding — and I was totally fine with it. I wanted to work at WWE, it was a terrific experience, and I wasn’t offended by “Kyle Edwards” at all. I knew WWE changed the names of many of their on-air personalities, especially at that time. The funniest part was that when I went back to sports broadcasting after my two-year stint at WWE, one of my colleagues said, “You know, you can’t be Kyle Edwards outside of WWE” because it owned the rights to the name. I still haven’t gotten over that to this day. (Send me thoughts and prayers!)
However, in a roundabout way, my time at WWE helped me close the book on “Adam.” Becoming Kyle made me appreciate being Arda and never think about becoming “Adam” again. I tried that “bomber jacket” on for a moment, and it just wasn’t for me. I never thought about changing my name again.
I accepted my identity and heritage in my professional persona, and when I eventually found my way to ESPN, I learned what it means for that to be embraced by your peers as well. Employees at big companies are always hearing about, participating in and celebrating conversations about diversity and inclusion. Sometimes we wonder if these conversations trigger any tangible change. This might be a very small example, but it meant a lot to me:
My first appearance on SportsCenter was in May 2021. By my research, you can count on one hand (and still have fingers to spare) the number of Muslim and Middle Eastern SportsCenter anchors in the show’s 42-year history. I’m the first and only Turk. It was a surreal moment to see my name on the wall in the show’s giant studio; SportsCenter is an institution. After the first segment, I got an email from the graphics producer apologizing for neglecting to put the umlaut over the “O” on my last name. He assured me it would be correct moving forward.
I want to be clear: I didn’t ask him to do this. He saw it, changed it and emailed to tell me he had done it. This may seem like a small gesture to some, but it meant the world to me. The kid who once felt like he never fit in was now getting an umlaut put on his name without even needing to raise his hand! When I’ve hosted national NHL games for ESPN (the thrill of a lifetime), the umlaut has been there since day one. No questions asked. I had never before seen an umlaut when an NHL broadcaster’s name is shown on TV. It is both surreal and wonderful.
If a younger version of me had asked that an umlaut be put on my name, I would’ve been seen at best as awkward, and likely problematic. People would’ve made fun of it or omitted it. Now, I feel like it’s embraced, especially by my colleagues. That’s a sign of things changing.
Maybe because I’m in my fourth decade on this beautiful planet, or because of all the experiences that have come before today, but I appreciate every single experience now, negative and positive. I’m a very nonconfrontational person — my motivation is to promote positivity through acceptance. I know what it’s like not to feel accepted, but I also now know how it feels to be included, and how to help foster that. We are all different in some way, and we should celebrate it. I happen to have an umlaut on the first letter of my last name. I wear a bracelet on every show I host to ward off the evil eye (it’s a cultural thing mostly, ask me about it sometime).
Most of all, I take great pride and joy in the thought that even one Muslim or Middle Eastern kid might be watching me and become inspired: Hey, that guy has a name like mine.