Mascots are supposed to inspire those who play for the team, but just as often they provide amusement for those who don’t.
On college campuses nationwide there are no fewer than 107 teams named for Lions, Tigers and Bears – oh my – but only the University of Idaho dares calls its teams the Vandals. I only wish the Vandals of Idaho could engage in macho combat with, say, the Ne’er Do Wells of Nevada.
With some teams, it’s hard to tell just whom they’re trying to scare. Take the Centenary College Ladies and Gentleman – the actual mascots. Are they intended to intimidate the ill-mannered? Or, how about the Brandeis University Judges, named after Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis. Who’s afraid of the big bad Judges – the Parolees of Penn State?
And what are we to make of the Wake Forest Demon Deacons? What are they, Demons or Deacons? I think they should pick one, and stick to it. Their oxymoronic mascot reminds me of a chant I once heard at a Friends School in Pennsylvania, where the seemingly oblivious cheerleaders broke into the classic mantra: “Fight, Quakers, Fight!”
This otherwise silly subject takes a serious turn when we start talking about Native American nicknames. Some 600 high school and college teams have dropped such names, but over 2,400 still use them.
It seems pretty obvious to me such pejoratives as Braves, Blackhawks and Redskins need to be replaced – and hundreds have been. But that shouldn’t mean all team names should automatically be changed.
There is no better example of good intentions gone awry than the mascot mess Eastern Michigan University stirred up a few years ago. The athletes there called themselves, at various times, the Normalites, the Men from Ypsi and, from 1929 to 1991, the Hurons.
Despite the fact that the Hurons are an authentic tribe indigenous to the region, and that the school created no offensive logos or rituals, a movement arose to change the name. Many of the arguments for doing so were of the “How would you like it?” variety.
This position ignores the many teams named for groups such as the Hoosiers and Cornhuskers, the Sooners and Aggies, not to mention the Midshipmen, the Mountaineers and the Minutemen. Believe it or not, Notre Dame’s teams used to be called the Vagabonds, but school officials felt that name would only reinforce negative stereotypes, so they changed it to the Fightin’ Irish, adopting a logo depicting a leprechaun with his dukes up. Problem solved.
In the professional ranks you have the Celtics and the Knickerbockers, the Canucks and the Yankees. Atlanta’s former minor league team was called – get this – the Crackers. That’s right: the Crackers. And don’t get me started on the Minnesota Vikings – named after my people – whose sideline mascot walks around wearing that silly horned helmet, which comes not from Nordic custom but a Wagner symphony.
I realize there is a fundamental difference between a bunch of white students deciding to call their squad the Minutemen, and a group of, say, African-Americans deciding to call their team the Crackers. Something tells me that wouldn’t go over so well.
But it’s also true that when we eradicate all group names – no matter how respectful or accepted they may be, we lose something. If we are to get rid of the Hurons, should we also rename Lake Huron, Port Huron, the Huron River and Huron High School? The vast majority of states adopted their Native American names, including Michigan, Mississippi and Minnesota, for starters.
Here’s another consideration – which too often seems to be an afterthought: What do the Native Americans think? Believe it or not, according to a Sports Illustrated survey, when asked if school teams should stop using Native American nicknames, 81% of Native Americans said no.
Shouldn’t that matter? It seems to me it’s almost as arrogant to assume Native Americans shouldn’t be insulted by the Redskins as it is to assume they should be by the Hurons – even if they’re not.
The officials of the University of Utah Utes did something almost revolutionary: They actually asked the members of the Ute tribe what they should do. The Utes said, please keep the name. And then, more incredibly, the university listened.
Eastern Michigan officials could find only two actual members of the Huron tribe, one in Oklahoma and the other in Quebec. When asked, they urged the school not to change its name because they felt it reflected well on their tribal heritage.
So the school changed it anyway. Worse, in my opinion, they didn’t change it to the whimsical (and obvious) Emus, but to the utterly bland Eagles – the single most common nickname in college sports – a mascot picked mainly for its inability to file a class-action lawsuit.
About the author: John U. Bacon lives in Ann Arbor and has written for Time, the New York Times, and ESPN Magazine, among others. His most recent book is “Bo’s Lasting Lessons,” a New York Times and Wall Street Journal business bestseller. Bacon teaches at Miami of Ohio, Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, and the University of Michigan, where the students awarded him the Golden Apple Award for 2009. This commentary originally aired on Michigan Radio.