The (Merciful) End of the Mascot Wars? (1915-2020)
Or: Why does anyone care so much about a stupid nickname?
Welcome to Throwbacks, a weekly-ish newsletter by Michael Weinreb about sports history, culture and politics. If you like what you’re reading, please subscribe and share.
Eighteen miles outside of my hometown, in the rural no-man’s land of central Pennsylvania, there is a tourist attraction called Penn’s Cave. I don’t remember how old I was when I first went to Penn’s Cave—maybe around six—but I remember the broad outlines of the legend they told us about a French explorer who fell in love with a Native American princess, and how that Princess’s name was Nit-a-Nee, and how their relationship was doomed, and how you could still hear the echoes in the caves of that doomed French explorer, crying out for his lost…
Jesus. Enough of that. You get the idea. This is not a Disney Plus newsletter. But my point is that when I tell people where I’m from, and when I mention Penn State, they often ask me, What is a Nittany Lion? And how does a Nittany Lion differ from an ordinary mountain lion?
The answer, of course, is that there is no answer, except that the mountain near the university is known as Mount Nittany (which, according to the reliable experts at Wikipedia, is an algonquin word meaning “single mountain”). In real life, there is no princess; in real life, there is no such thing as a nittany lion. I’m not even sure if there are mountain lions on Mount Nittany, to be honest; I was always either too young or too hungover to climb it. It’s just a story we tell ourselves that ultimately means nothing at all.
II. New York Citrus
It’s disorienting to ask a question the Internet can’t definitively and immediately answer. But on occasion, even the yawning maw of Google—and as an underemployed journalist, I welcome our new search-engine overlords—emerges from the logarithmic stratosphere with an empty hand. What I wanted to know was why American sports teams embraced nicknames in ways that other countries often didn’t, and the best answer I could find was on a Reddit thread populated by history nerds, which is, I realize, the kind of sourcing that makes Wikipedia look like The New England Journal of Medicine.
Here is what we know: In the years following the Civil War, as organized sports gathered momentum in America, teams began to identify themselves by nicknames. In the early days of baseball, it was enough to identify yourself by the name of your club and the appellation “B.B.C.” (or base ball club). But at some point, things got literally more colorful, and teams—many of them at colleges—began to identify themselves by their distinct colors. Eventually, that translated into nicknames, and nicknames transformed into mascots, and soon live animals began prowling the sidelines of college football games.
Now, I will admit that live animals on the sideline of sporting events are generally spectacular, and I will also admit that ESPN may not have built an empire if it weren’t for grown humans willing to don mascot costumes shaped like rejected Jim Henson sketches.
You might even argue that nicknames of sports teams are part of what make American sports uniquely American: Ridiculous, opulent, provincial, and often nonsensical. Is there anything you would otherwise associate less with Syracuse, New York, than citrus fruit? How many Tigers are there in Auburn, Alabama, or Clemson, South Carolina, or the entire south, that aren’t owned by Carole Baskin? Why the hell are the Utah Jazz still the Utah Jazz decades after moving out of New Orleans, and why are the Los Angeles Lakers still the Lakers decades after abandoning Minneapolis?
There is no rational explanation for any of this, except to say that it’s the kind of amusingly silly mythology that Americans love to embrace. In England, most Premier League soccer teams, even the ones that have nicknames, aren’t known primarily by those nicknames; they’re known by the city or the region or the neighborhood. In some places, like Japan, they’re often known primarily by their corporate ownership. Maybe, as the Reddit experts speculate, American sports teams needed a way to distinguish themselves from the crowded fields of teams in cities and towns across the country, but it always strikes me as incredibly odd that anyone would become so attached to one of these nicknames that it would take on actual cultural and political importance—so much so that it would supersede any perceptions of bigotry and racism.
Yet this is an argument that has been raging for decades. And as it turns out, in the midst of perhaps the most polarized era of our lifetimes, it may finally be over.
III. The Power of Symbols
If you want to know why the baseball team in Cleveland changed its name from the Spiders to the Indians in the early 20th century, I will refer you to the definitive voice of Joe Posnanski. But the short version goes like this: Around 1915, after the miracle Boston Braves came back to win the pennant, teams decided to jump on the Native American nickname bandwagon in the hopes of capturing some of that mojo. In Cleveland, sportswriters made a loose and tenuous connection to a former Native American ballplayer named Louis Sockalexis. Future generations adopted that tale, and somehow the Indians nickname morphed from an attempt to jump on the bandwagon to a spirited tribute to an indigenous people.
For some reason, a lot of people in Cleveland still feel this way even now, as it becomes clear that the nickname is outdated and offensive and utterly pointless. In Washington, D.C., team owner Dan Snyder spent years digging in against the perceived forces of political correctness who insisted that he alter a team name that is an undisputed racial slur, until the current moment finally forced his hand.
And why? Because this is the way it’s always been. There will always be a certain percentage of people who feel like changing pretty much anything at all would somehow be a sacrifice of a sacred tradition. After all, there are enough people attached the way things used to be in this country that they managed to elect an incurious bigot whose entire re-election platform is now built on overtly racist nostalgia.
Symbols—whether a mascot or a confederate statue—make for effortless points of division; they are easy things to tweet about, and they’re often an easy way to gloss over the underlying issues that make these symbols controversial in the first place. None of this is new: In 1972 (see the newspaper clip above), Stanford abandoned its Indian mascot, and a number of sports columnists of the era reacted with disdain at what they viewed as a cultural overreaction brought on by the social reforms of the 1960s (fortunately, Stanford has since unofficially adopted the greatest perennial plant mascot in the history of this country).
And over the course of the next fifty years, nicknames and statues and symbols have never ceased to serve as political wedges: There are still people in my hometown angry that the Joe Paterno statue has vanished into the ether, as if somehow putting it back would absolve us of our sins.
IV. Go Mountain Lions
Speaking of misplaced nostalgia, here is what Redskins owner Dan Snyder wrote in 2013, about attending Redskins games at age six:
That tradition -- the song, the cheer -- it mattered so much to me as a child, and I know it matters to every other Redskins fan in the D.C. area and across the nation.
When I was six years old, I went to Penn’s Cave and heard that fanciful princess story. If I hadn’t heard that story, would I have somehow enjoyed the experience of a live sporting event any less? Also, when I was six years old, we used to play a game of keepaway with a football in the backyard. That game was referred to with a rhyming homophobic slur. The fact that nobody uses that terminology anymore doesn’t lessen my nostalgia for my old backyard.
I’ve read enough about Buddhism and downloaded enough meditation apps to know that human beings are inexorably fighting against their inherent fear of change. I understand that this holds especially true for sports, because sports feel like a sea of stability in a changing world. (This is why so many of us are having such a hard time without them these past few months.) I have a friend who I would otherwise consider a “rational” human being who still cannot get over the fact that the Seattle Seahawks moved from the AFC to the NFC. (By the way, there is no such thing as a seahawk, especially in Seattle, where there are no seas.) But let’s take the wedge political issue out of the equation and ask ourselves: What in the hell are we really arguing about here? Why would anyone want to take a principled stand on the patently ridiculous concept of a sports-team nickname?
When I tell people I’m from central Pennsylvania, I don’t tell them I’m a Nittany Lion. Mostly because I’m not six years old anymore. If a native tribe came along and declared the Nittany Lion nickname was somehow offensive and the name should be changed to “Mountain Lions,” I honestly wouldn’t care, though it would require me and thousands of others to alter the passwords on our banking websites.
I am not attached to the apocryphal stories behind a nickname. I am attached to the stories behind a place. I recognize that certain places feel like home; I also recognize that these places and their history are not beyond reproach. If the Cleveland Indians were to become the Cleveland Spiders again, what would truly be lost? If the Washington Redskins were to become the Washington Red Hawks, what would truly be lost? A single word in a single song? A cringeworthy logo of a chief? How would it alter the lives of future generations? How would it alter the perceptions of Cleveland, and Washington, D.C., their history and their problems and their overarching character?
There is no rational retort to that question. None. After fifty years of reactionary rage over these things, all that’s left are whimpers of political fury and misplaced nostalgia. At a moment when change is coming so hard and so fast that its difficult to keep up, this argument is just about over.
This newsletter is very much a work in progress. Thoughts? Ideas for future editions? Contact me via twitter or at michaeliweinreb at gmail, or leave a comment below. If you enjoyed this newsletter, please subscribe and/or share it with others.