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Tobias Winright

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What's in a School Name and Mascot?

Posted: 10/18/11 01:13 PM ET

While running during lunch hour on campus the first day of classes this semester, I saw a student wearing a t-shirt with "Billi-what?" on the front. Billikens were all the rage in the US at the beginning of the twentieth century. Although there continues to be some mystery as to how it happened, the Billiken has been the nickname for Saint Louis University's athletic teams since 1911, allegedly because the physique of the football coach at that time, John Bender, resembled a Billiken. Although the Billiken was also a mascot for a handful of minor league baseball teams in the past, today few people know what a Billiken is and it remains a mascot unique in collegiate circles to Saint Louis University.

Because I've attended many schools over the years, I've cheered for an interesting assortment of names and mascots. In rural northwest Ohio, during kindergarten and first grade, there was the Hilltop Cadets, and from second through seventh grades, the Edon Bombers. While in middle school in northeast Indiana, I rooted for the Angola Hornets. On the Gulf coast of Florida, there was the Pinellas Park Patriots during ninth grade, then the Tarpon Springs Spongers until I graduated from high school. These were followed by the University of South Florida Bulls, the Duke Blue Devils, and the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame.

In recent years, a number of names and mascots have undergone scrutiny, particularly those that have come to be seen as racist. My first academic appointment was at Simpson College, a United Methodist-related liberal arts institution in Indianola, Iowa. A few years prior to my arrival, the college dropped "Redmen" and replaced it with "Storm" as the name for its athletic teams and mascot. Similarly, in 2006 United Methodist-related McMurry University in Abilene, Texas discontinued referring to its teams as the "Indians." That denomination has a policy against using racially derogatory team names and mascots, and in 2005 the National Collegiate Athletic Association began to prohibit teams with such names from post-season tournament competition (though an exception was made for the Florida State University "Seminoles"). Most recently, the Board of Aldermen for the town of Osceola, Missouri, issued a resolution calling on the University of Kansas to drop its "Jayhawk" mascot name because of its association with an episode on September 22-23, 1861, when US Senator Jim Lane and 2000 "jayhawkers" subjected that prosperous town of 2500 to two days of looting, murder and arson -- with fewer than 200 people remaining afterwards. I doubt anything will come of this resolution, though.

Another team name and mascot -- often associated with Christian colleges and high schools--called into question lately is "Crusaders." At the end of a chapter about "holy war" in his book, Who Would Jesus Kill? War, Peace, and the Christian Tradition, Mark Allman provides a discussion question for students: "In the United States, the athletic teams and bands of many Christian schools (elementary, secondary, and colleges and universities) are known as 'The Crusaders.' What do you think about this and why?" (155) Responses from students tend to fall into three groups: first, some claim this is an inspirational mascot name that should be kept; second, some admit that while there are moral problems associated with the crusades, the word now means something positive and should be retained for mascots; and third, others believe that the mascot name is morally offensive and should be changed.

Students in the first two groups highlight how "Crusaders" means, for them, devotedly giving our utmost for a higher cause. Thus, there have been "crusades" against slavery, child labor, sweat shops and other injustices. Originally meaning "marked by the cross" or "taking of the cross," it sounds like a noble thing to rally a school's teams and fans. Still, in an article appearing in U.S. Catholic magazine in February 2002, Peter Gilmour wonders about Muslims who now are often part of the student bodies at many Catholic schools in the US: "I have to wonder if they join in Crusader chants at pep rallies and games? Do Crusader decals grace their cars' back windows?" (6) The students in the third group share this concern. They understand that the word "Crusades" connotes negative violent acts of total war against Muslims who were regarded as evil, possessing neither dignity nor rights. In 1095 Pope Urban II, for example, referred to Muslims as "an accursed race, a race wholly alienated from God" when he implored his Christian flock to march to Jerusalem. How would Christian students feel if they attended a Muslim-affiliated school whose mascot was the "Jihadists" (even though this term doesn't necessarily mean "terrorists" or "indiscriminate killers of non-Muslims")? Or, if we're going to retain the "Crusaders," why don't we have the "Inquisitors"? Among most Christian churches today, the crusade approach to war, which was not constrained by rules such as noncombatant immunity, is no longer viewed as morally valid--only just war or pacifism are.

Of course, one way that "Crusaders" differs from "Indians" is that the latter term refers to the victims of conquest. A more parallel term to "Crusaders" would be "Conquistadors," which I also find morally problematic. In the end, schools associated with a Savior, who was nailed to a cross rather than who beat his enemies' heads with it, should follow the lead of Wheaton College, which changed its mascot in 2000 from the "Crusaders" to "Thunder" -- though I admit that mascots such as "Storm" and "Thunder" are not very motivational, especially for church-related institutions. Why not instead the Simpson "Saints" or the Wheaton "Martyrs"?