Why Campus Mascots and Nicknames Are Under Attack

sky diver.jpgThe University of North Dakota sports teams have been known as the “Sioux” or the “Fighting Sioux” for more than 80 years. But this week the university’s hockey team played and lost in the NCAA playoffs wearing uniforms that said simply “North Dakota.” The reason: Last November, North Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple signed legislation permitting the university to retire its “Fighting Sioux” nickname so its hockey team could play schools that had boycotted teams with offensive mascots. This was a triumph for the NCAA in its years-long war against “hostile and abusive” nicknames and logos.

Quarrels over the dropping of long-cherished “offensive” nicknames often
generate immense acrimony. I personally observed this battle in my 28
years at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Arguments over
the Fighting Illini and Chief Illiniwek were fierce, even contributing
to the firing of uber-PC campus Chancellor Nancy Cantor.

artichokes.jpgWhat instigates all this passion? Initially, there seems to be no logical pattern regarding how “offensiveness” is determined. No Catholic feels outraged over names like the San Diego Padres, New Orleans Saints or California Angels. One could argue that Notre Dame’s “Fighting Irish” (which helped inspire the “Fighting Sioux”) only exacerbates a dangerous stereotype, but few seem to care. In some instances “offensiveness” is just a matter of a vote. For example, the Florida State’s Seminoles, the University of Utah Utes and the Central Michigan University Chippewas escaped the “offensive” label by having local tribes acquiesce (one of two Sioux tribes in North Dakota disapproved of the “Fighting Sioux” so it had to be dropped).

Notice that the campus sensitivity police direct their most intense ire almost entirely at the mascots and logos of colleges, rather than pro teams. Yes, the Cleveland Indians or Washington Redskins do come in their share of pummeling, but professional sports teams generally enjoy diplomatic immunity from charges of “disrespect.”

fighting-irish.jpgNotice too that rage is directed only to nicknames that inspire respect for masculine virtues–aggression, steadfastness against one’s enemies, courage, honor, cunning, even a willingness to die for nation, family and God. Michigan State (and 15 other schools) calls itself Spartans while USC (and 10 other schools) are the Trojans, and neither city-state embraced an ancient Gandhi. Americans adore mothers but no team would ever be called “The Mothers.” These masculine even war-like virtues are under attack–and it isn’t a matter of hurt feelings... Indian nicknames are commonplace but as far as I know, no school calls themselves “the Zunis” since that tribe is noted for its non-violence and passivity (see here for additional college nicknames).

This pattern is strikingly clear in the military. The Apaches once brutally tortured and killed thousands of American soldiers, but the military still admires their warrior spirit and happily uses the Apache name for its deadly helicopter. Other “Indian” helicopters include the Blackhawk, Iroquois and Lakota. When they jump, US paratroopers yell “Geronimo,” the name of the ferocious Apache Chief, not “St. Francis of Assisi.”

illini-chief.gifThis interpretation became clear to me when I served in the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign faculty Senate. Here the anti-Illiniwek campaign was an enduring lifestyle for certain radical faculty, the same crowd that embraced the PC agenda of multicultural inclusiveness, i.e., recruiting more women and select minorities. A few of these professors even speculated that the Indian name discouraged Native American students from enrolling. These were probably the same folk who populated anti-war rallies and would oppose campus ROTC for any number of handy reasons.

When the dots are connected, it is clear that expunging symbols celebrating masculinity energizes this passion. The aim is feminizing campus life, a long march reflected in everything from banning fraternities (“wild drunken orgies exploiting hapless women”) to abolishing men’s sports teams to achieve Title IX gender equality (testosterone-besotted “jocks,” especially lacrosse teams), to one-sided anti-sexual harassment codes that come close to criminalizing normal adolescent behavior. Further, add a near obsession with making homosexuals and even cross-dressers feel welcome, though I suspect that butch gays partial to black leather and Harleys will find a less welcome reception. If this war on men and masculinity is doubted, just look at the falling male enrollments outside the hard sciences and engineering.

The_Fighting_Okra.jpgIn 1970, with the counterculture nearing its peak, the students at Scottsdale Community College voted in an unusually non-masculine team nickname: “The Fighting Artichokes.” Other irascible vegetable nicknames followed, like the Delta State Fighting Okra. With time and growing PC power, not even traditional animal mascots may be safe. Surely “the Wildcats” (used by 37 teams) may soon get the ax as “too violent” and excessively carnivorous (no small matter for noisy campus vegans). Recall the dustup at the University of Massachusetts over the Revolutionary War Minuteman symbol–too warlike, it was said, and too white. My suggestion for colleges: avoid all the acrimony, do not pass Go, and proceed directly to innocuous flowers. Who can possibly object if, for example, next year’s Rose Bowl features the Michigan State Tulips versus the UCLA Fighting Poinsettias? As a former Big-Ten fan, Go Tulips Go! Bloom, laka Bloom, Bloom, Bloom.

Robert Weissberg is Professor of Political Science, Emeritus at The University of Illinois-Urbana, and occasionally teaches in the NYU Politics Department MA Program.


5 thoughts on “Why Campus Mascots and Nicknames Are Under Attack

  1. The nickname for the Laguna Beach,California,
    High School sports teams is “The Artists.”
    The LBHS football teams hardly ever win a
    Maybe if they changed the name to “Fighting
    Artists,” the team would do better.
    The school administrators would be shocked
    if someone recommended that name change.

  2. In honor of Obama’s alma mater and in recognition of Obama’s bicycle riding and bowing to foreign potentates, I suggest changing Harvard’s violent blood red symbol to a much more appropriate: “HARVARD PANSIES”.

  3. About ten years or so ago, Wilbur Wildcat at the University of Arizona had his six shooters taken away and now is defenseless against Sparky, the Arizona State University mascot, who still carries a pitchfork.

  4. In the case of North Dakota, the only NCAA member institution required to obtain approval from two groups, one group approved of the nickname and the other never held a vote. The group that did not vote is the one that presented UND with the nickname in a religious ceremony in the 1960s.
    While they were retiring the Sioux nickname (UND has never had a mascot), they changed the Sioux Crew fan club to NoDak Nation (NDN).

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