After seven years without a mascot, Mississippi University announced on Oct. 14 a replacement of its previous mascot, Colonel Reb. The Colonel — an old Southern man who looks like a stereotype of a nineteenth century plantation owner — was banished in 2003, and will now be replaced by the Rebel Black Bear. Colonel Reb’s departure has not been met with unanimous approval. A group of students founded The Colonel Reb Foundation in its memory and plan on dressing like the old mascot at upcoming football games.
The Colonel Reb Foundation’s founder snarked to The New York Times in an Oct. 14 article that the school should call itself “Politically Correct University.”
Unfortunately, the term ‘politically correct’ doesn’t have much of a reputation. As this case shows, it’s frequently used to discredit liberals as oversensitive or as looking for excuses to take offense. Many on the left try to avoid being characterized this way. For instance, LSA advertises its Intergroup Relations program — which facilitates dialogue between typically opposing groups — as “beyond politically correct.”
There are certainly cases when PCness can “run amok,” to steal a phrase from fellow Daily columnist Imran Syed (Political correctness run amok, 02/21/2010). But in the case of sports mascots that invoke troubled pasts, the left can’t be bullied by the term. It’s a case where being politically correct makes the most sense.
Certain attempts to be PC can be trivial or unproductive. For instance, trying to correct friends and acquaintances every time they misuse the word ‘gay’ is probably a losing battle. Perhaps my favorite example of PC gone wrong was when I was in South Africa two summers ago and a teacher, who was giving my group a tour of his school, continuously referred to his students as “African American.” But none of his students were actually American — they were simply African.
But the fight against offensive sports mascots can be productive. Sports are tremendously important to American culture. For that reason, the symbols used as mascots are pervasive and meaningful to a lot of people. At the same time, some of these mascots carry the memory of the history that comes with them. By changing mascots, a university or a franchise can signal how American values have changed over time and how certain practices that were once acceptable no longer are.
Colonel Reb’s historical significance is fairly conspicuous. His use as a mascot romanticizes the Antebellum South, which can’t be viewed separately from the slave system that supported it. Furthermore, the caricature was developed in the 1940s and was part of university culture during periods characterized by racial struggles.
In recent years, the Ole Miss leadership has made many changes to amend its image as a racially intolerant university. It has admitted a larger percentage of black students, scolded the use of Confederate flags at football games and abandoned “Dixie” as its fight song, according to a Sept. 19 article in The New York Times. The decision to abandon Colonel Reb was part of the same trend.
Ole Miss isn’t the only university with mascot controversies. Many universities and professional sports franchises are under scrutiny for using Native American mascots. Though controversies with Native Americans are currently less salient than racial issues, the use of Native Americans as mascots is no more acceptable.
There are few other cases where it has become common practice to use living and prominent ethnic groups as a mascot. Most mascots and team names tend to fall under the following categories: inanimate objects, animals, historical groups that no longer exist (Trojans, Spartans, Celtics), and nicknames with local significance (Corn Huskers, Steelers, Saints). The one exception here is the Fighting Irish, but that name makes sense since, historically, many Notre Dame players and followers were actually Irish. Lumping Native Americans into the pool of caricatures that make up sports mascots is humiliating.
Some may argue that Native American mascots are a sign of respect, as they are supposed to be symbols of bravery. But given this country’s history of Native American oppression and the current tendency to ignore Native American grievances, many don’t see it this way. To many Native Americans, the mascots are simply insulting.
Breaking with tradition is never easy. If the University of Michigan had happened to adopt a Colonel Reb or a Chief Illiniwek of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in its early history, we would probably be going through the same types of controversies. But contrary to the criticism, this is not a case of excessive political correctness. Getting rid of offensive sports mascots is practical and feasible, and it will have long-term effects on our social values. It’s a case of PC gone right.
Jeremy Levy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.