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Mascots, like the Lion, should unite

When the administration of Alpha Omega Academy, an online school in over 45 countries, surveyed parents, students, teachers and alumni regarding the adoption of a mascot, the effort was designed to create a sense of community.

“Many people are under the impression that mascots can only be used for sports, but that is not true. Mascots are an important part of academic institutions as well,” the communication noted. “They give students, parents, teachers and administration a sense of pride, loyalty, unity and belonging, and these are feelings that will stick with us long after we have turned in our last language arts assignment or completed our final chemistry lab.”

The academy’s next point could very easily have been intended for society, in general.

“Mascots create unity between generally diverse groups within the school,” it said. “The bonds that are formed by this unity transcend normal social dividers.”

Increasingly over the years, the mascots and nicknames of more than a few professional, college and high school sports teams have become sources of division rather than unification.

A Chicago Tribune columnist recently suggested that Major League Baseball’s Texas Rangers should drop the nickname that is associated with a major division within the Texas Department of Public Safety, due to the law enforcement agency’s “long record of savagery, lawlessness and racism.”

The ballclub issued a statement that detailed how its foundation has created a legacy of philanthropic investments in programs and grants in underserved communities and offered “a renewed promise that the Texas Rangers name will represent solutions and hope for a better future for our communities.”

The statement emphasized that, “While we may have originally taken our name from the law enforcement agency, since 1971 the Texas Rangers Baseball Club has forged its own, independent identity. The Texas Rangers Baseball Club stands for equality. We condemn racism, bigotry and discrimination in all forms.”

At the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, a statue named Hey Reb! was taken down in mid-June and returned to a donor, in response to criticism that the image is rooted in racist ideology. The future of the school’s Rebel mascot is under consideration.

As described in “UNLV: A History,” the student body had an opportunity to choose a new nickname for the school in the early 1970s but voted to retain Rebels because, “After all, ‘rebel’ stood for much more than a supporter of the Civil War against the Union. In the 1960s especially, it symbolized those who rejected convention, tradition and racism.”

Times change, cultures evolve, and identities are re-assessed.

The selection of “Fighting Sioux” at the University of North Dakota may have been well-intentioned in 1930, but by 2005, it was deemed to be a “hostile” or “abusive” American Indian nickname by the NCAA, which helped to facilitate change by prohibiting the use of such nicknames in postseason events.

Thus, the Fighting Sioux transitioned to the Fighting Hawks. It was left to the marketers at the university to offer context.

“Over time, our nicknames and logos have changed. But as history reminds us, our tradition does not change.”

Closer to home, the Penn State Nittany Lion mascot has been described as “the symbol of our best.”

May it be so with nicknames, mascots and statues at all institutions across our great land, particularly those that possess the ability to unite us.

Jim Caltagirone resides in Altoona. He is an occasional contributor to Voice of the Fan.

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