Adopt a Mascot

Peter Wood

A March basketball game between Utah State University and New Mexico State University turned into a sort of rodeo when a fan offered $100 to the Utah State bull mascot “Big Blue” to yank the fake mustache off the New Mexico State cowboy mascot “Pistol Pete.” Big Blue accepted the challenge and ripped the glued-on whiskers from Pistol Pete’s face, whereupon Pete jumped on the bull’s back and tried unsuccessfully to bring him down. Big Blue got away with the money, which Utah State U promised to donate to a good cause. 

As it happens, the scrap came after Pistol Pete’s two-year term without his pistols, when the University redesigned the logo with a lasso instead. A Pistol Pete who wasn’t packing pistols left something empty, besides his holsters, and his side arms were returned to Pete in 2007. So was the bribe just a good-natured prank or did it represent a protest against firearms on campus? It’s unclear in this case, but in recent years many college mascots have lost more than a mustache to controversies over certain nicknames.

Since fall 2000, the Chronicle of Higher Education has kept up a sometimes amusing “Mascot Watch.” As the opportunity arises various Chronicle staffers have commented sardonically on the tortuous efforts of politically correct administrators to replace hallowed but now suspect personifications of school spirit with symbols so stripped of meaningful historical resonance that no one could possibly object—except of course the people who unfathomably remain attached to the demoted icon. 

The mascot wars started well before the Chronicle started officially chronicling them. In the 1960s, some Native American activists seized on the names of professional sports teams and Indian-themed college mascots as a cause for grievance. Slowly but surely grind the wheels of political correctness. One by one numerous colleges de-Indianized their images, even Dartmouth College, which was originally founded in 1743 in Connecticut as Moor’s Charity School for Indians before removing to New Hampshire. Eleazar Wheelock, the missionary founder, believed that there was no difference between whites and Indians in “original genius,” and Wheelock’s journals are said to bear “testimony to the deep penetration, manly sentiment, and forcible eloquence” of the leading men among the New England tribes. Dartmouth naturally adopted the Indian as its symbol but officially sent him into exile in the 1970s. The fiercest such fight was over the University of Illinois’s Chief Illiniwek, but he too was eventually de-throned.

Ironically, this ethnic cleansing often had more to do with imagined rectitude of campus activists than tribal resentment, although a good many Native Americans eventually learned to play their part as deeply aggrieved victims of racist caricature. The oft-made counter-observation that the Indian mascots were typically boasts about the physical prowess, courage, and noble spirit of Native Americans that the non-Indian college kids hoped to imitate didn’t win any arguments. The woeful tale of exploitation proved much more congenial in an age where the ideals of stoic independence and honor lost out to the pathos of collective victimhood. The few remaining Indian mascots persist only because a particular tribe has emphatically endorsed the imagery. Florida State U fans have managed to keep chopping away as Seminoles, and U North Dakota has until October 1 to get two local tribes’ approval for its name the Fighting Sioux (as of now, one tribe approves and the other disapproves). The Mississippi College Choctaws are holding fast to the name with the approval of the actual Mississippi Choctaws, but the College did retire the mascot, Chief Choc, in favor of an arrowhead logo.

After the NCAA in 2005 announced that teams with Native American nicknames would be placed on an NCAA blacklist, colleges had an even more urgent reason to make changes. The movement has displaced numerous colleges’ nicknames, including the Dickenson State Savages, the Quinnipiac Braves, the Miami Redskins, the Marquette Warriors. 

While Native American mascots have gotten the most attention, plenty of other characters have felt the PC lash of repudiation as well. In fall 1993, David K. Scott, the chancellor of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, declared that he would retire the “Minuteman” mascot—as apparently too embarrassingly patriotic. Had the Tories rallied after two centuries to retake the Bay Colony for the Queen? No, it was—surprise—racial politics. An undergraduate student, Martin Jones, had petitioned the University to provide more financial aid to minority students, rename the library after W.E. B. Du Bois, and jettison the white guy mascot. Jones wrote, “To have a white male represent a student body that is not exclusively white or male is culturally biased, and promotes racism." He also objected to having a “military figure” as mascot. 

The ruckus that followed the chancellor’s decision to kick out the Minuteman reached Governor Weld (R) who defended the heroes of the American Revolution rather than the new one underway in Amherst. The Chancellor then backed down. History does not record what Mr. Jones or Chancellor Scott had imagined as an alternative. 

But we have plenty of instances of how such revisionism works out. The Wheaton College Crusaders have become the Thunder.   In 1999, the president of Dixie State College in southwest Utah demoted its mascot, Rodney the Rebel, as too, well, Southern—a strange problem for a college named Dixie. The new mascot became “Reb the Red Hawk,” a rebellious sort of bird, but students persisted in calling themselves the “Rebels.” To put a stop to this sedition, in 2007, Dixie State dismissed Reb the Red Hawk in favor of the Red Storm and a new mascot, “Ragin’ Red,” who is a black bull. The deeply mediated purpose of these changes, according to Steve Johnson, director of public relations, in symbolism is to make Dixie State more respectable by enhancing diversity as Dixie changes from a two-year to a four-year institution.

The Stanford Indians have become “the Cardinal” (as in the color, not the bird). The Syracuse Saltine Warriors have become, simply, “the Orange.”

But even such bland choices as weather conditions and colors could potentially be open to criticism. The name “Hurricanes” for instance might be a painful reminder of Katrina, though no one has yet expressed this complaint. And let’s face it, the only safe color anymore is green.  

Case in point, in its transition from the Redmen to the River Hawks, at Oklahoma’s Northeastern State University used a temporary mascot, “a big green lovable mop head,” of whom the University’s president said, “He's unisex, uni-everything...Nobody could object to him.” He’s unisex?

The Chronicle generally seems to approve of de-Indianification, but occasionally indulges in wry comments. In the case of the Northeastern identity crisis, the author added, “In the Choctaw language, ‘okla’ means ‘people’ and ‘humma’ means ‘red.’ No word yet on whether the state will be changing its name as well.”

A casual observation: de-Indianification is very often accompanied by Hawk-izing. Northeastern’s Redmen became River Hawks;  Indiana University of Pennsylvania replaced Indians with “Crimson Hawks;” the Southeast Missouri State University Indians became “Redhawks;” the University of Massachusetts at Lowell switched from the Chiefs to the River Hawks. The University of Louisiana at Monroe transformed “Chief Brave Spirit” into—what else?—“Ace the Warhawk.” An expedient solution was found by Southeastern Community College in West Burlington, Iowa, which went from the “Blackhawks” to the “Black Hawks,” i.e. to “a bird of prey rather than American Indians.”  Not everyone, however, can be a hawk. The Muscatine Community College (Iowa) Indians became mere Cardinals. Don’t they know hawks eat cardinals?

We don’t want to overstate the case. Some teams become hawks without ever having been Indians. The University of Denver sent its Pioneers packing in favor of Ruckus, a red-tailed hawk. Denver Boone, the old mascot, had to move on because he was a symbol of “Western expansionism.” And some Indians become non-avian species. East Stroudsburg University in Pennsylvania replaced Willie the Warrior with Burgy the Warrior. Burgy is not an Angry Whopper but a hungry grizzly bear.  

One college seems to have changed its team name when its own feelings were hurt. Meredith College, an all-women institution, added an adjective to make the Angels the Avenging Angels. Cherubic haloes and wings just weren’t that intimidating. They made other teams chuckle. But the Angels will have revenge.  

Mount Saint Mary’s University in Maryland sent their old hillbilly “Mountaineer” off to his still. He appears not to have been replaced, the college contenting itself with the geologic nickname, “the Mount.” City College of City University of New York grew embarrassed by its too-eager sounding “Benny the Beaver” and went in search of a fiercer rodent. The new image looks like a beaver with rabies. He doesn’t appear to have a name, but we suggest Berserko. 

And now that the Native American motif has been run out of town, some of those searching for trivial grievances over which to work up a lather seem to have turned to the cause of rescuing animals from being reduced callously to symbols. This January, as part of its “Sea Kitten” campaign to arouse compassion for fish, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) urged Palm Beach Atlantic University to change its mascot from Sailfish to Sea Kitten. PETA wanted PBAU to set the example in enlightening people to the cruelty of fishing. Palm Beach Atlantic U thought the request was “amusing,” but informed PETA that it would keep its Sailfish mascot.

Will PETA let it rest? Or will the Sailfish become the next extinct team name? Before we shrug it off as another PC inanity, consider for a moment that the NCAA potentially has a voice in this. Is there any PC idea so devoid of merit that the NCAA won’t at some point give it a serious hearing? Sailfish, sail on. But watch out for baited hooks dangling from the side of NCAA watercraft.

We hesitate to give anyone an idea for further mischief, but surely someone in the LGBTQ community at Campbell University is offended by Gaylord the camel? And how does the Miami Maniac make special needs students with oppositional defiant disorder feel?  

There’s no telling where the mascot incrimination will end, but its havoc so far has orphaned dozens of helpless mascots. We want to express our concern. There are shelters for abandoned pets and stray animals, but who cares for castaway mascots?

They’re lonely, and they need a good home.

Look into the big soft eyes and weathered face of Chief Illiniwek. Hug the white-robed fallen Angel, cast down by dark-cloaked wearers of revenge. Hear the clank of the heavy-laden Crusader trudging by, clad in all his rusty armor. Listen to the sad tale of Rodney the Rebel as he tells how coldheartedly he was flung aside.   Sit a spell with the Mountaineer as he reminisces about life before he was dis-mounted.   Shake the dust off with Denver Boone, as he sits forlornly by the fading campfire.   Have some nibbles with Benny the Beaver, cast aside because of his own good nature.

Spend some time with the orphans, and consider making one of them yours. They’ll grab at your heart if you don’t grab at their mustaches.

Take one home with you today. And if you care to make a contribution to the National Association of Scholars, we promise we will use your donation to continue our outreach to campus mascots, who may be demoted, bedraggled, and scorned, but still have lots of love in their fictional hearts. 

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