Are racist sports team nicknames as “racist” as they used to be?
Today is National Signing Day for college football. That means this is the first day that a high school senior can sign a binding National Letter of Intent for college football with a school that is a member of the NCAA, the main governing body for college sports in the United States (definition snagged from Wikipedia).
Y’all know I’m a big fan of the NFL, and sports in general. I love me some college football, but haven’t followed it very closely in the past few years. However, National Signing Day is always fun, because you see what schools are gearing up for a big title run two or three years from now, based on their incoming freshman class. This is a drama-filled day, and the result of years of recruiting by the best programs in the nation.
It’s also fun to see young men that have the opportunity to do something special: make a living playing football. National Signing Day is, in effect, the “coming out party” for high-level athletes that — thanks to a combination of hard work and genetics — may someday play in the NFL.
So there I was, reading up on today’s signings, and I saw an article that the University of Mississippi is racking up multiple coups, landing not only the consensus #1 recruit (defensive end Robert Nkemdiche), but also top-ranked offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil (pictured at right). Ole Miss landed more blue-chip recruits as well, and is suddenly a power to watch.
But it was a quote form Laremy that caught me off-guard. He said, “I want to be a Rebel.”
“The Rebels” (also bandied about as the “Running Rebels”) is the nickname of Ole Miss sports teams. Yes, as in, the rebels of the Confederacy, not the Rebels of Luke and Lei fame (if only we could be so lucky …). For decades, the university’s fans brandished the Confederate flag as a school symbol, and the university’s official mascot was known as “Colonel Reb” (pictured at right).
For those of you unfamiliar with this nickname, there he is on the right. And, yes, that is a caricature of a Southern plantation owner.
In 2010, Ole Miss changed its official mascot to the “Rebel Black Bear.”
This blog post isn’t about the history of Ole Miss. It’s about nicknames of sports teams in general, and the perceived racial implications of those names. Tunsil’s quote struck me because he didn’t say “I want to play for Ole Miss,” he said “I want to be a Rebel.” A young man with a world of potential doesn’t seem to be bothered by the history of that nickname — is that because the meaning of the nickname just isn’t the same?
There are still racially insensitive nicknames for sports teams, for sure. In particular, the Washington Redskins comes to mind. The mayor of DC is campaigning to change the name.
“Redskins” doesn’t have a positive connotation, I’ll grant you that. However, some college teams are named for specific American Indian tribes, in the context that the warriors of said tribe are tough, fierce and dedicated — qualities to aspire to for any athlete, particularly a violent sport like football. In that line of thought, nicknames using the names of American Indian tribes is complimentary and localized, akin to naming a team the Cowboys, the Patriots, the Packers, the Texans or (to get a little European indigenous population to balance the scales), the Vikings.
I grew up in Michigan. There were two college teams named after local Native American tribes: the Central Michigan Chippewas and the Eastern Michigan Hurons. At the height of the political correctness movement in the early 90s, Eastern’s board of regents changed the nickname to the “Eagles,” despite claims that the actual leaders of the Huron tribe support the use of the Huron name for athletics. Eastern changed, while CMU stayed pat (but did remove the Indian spear logo from their helmet).
Due to the GFL series, there is a lot of scifi/football on this site. I’ve tried to incorporate that localized nickname feel with teams like the Astronauts and the Hullwalkers.
So this is the question: if a black kid aspires to be a Rebel, does that nickname have the same meaning? Has Ole Miss successfully updated their existing nickname, keeping a part of their history and tradition while at the same time “re-branding” to be more inclusive? Should the opinion of the school nickname be based on old people, like myself or the board of regents at Eastern Michigan University, or should it be based on the opinion of the kids who actually attend the school?
What are your thoughts?
(And sorry, Washington fans, I’m afraid that as traditional as I am, “Redskins” needs to go).
From 1979 to 2003, “Colonel Reb” was the official mascot of the University of Mississippi athletic teams.
“Rebel Black Bear,”