I was a Cougar when I played football and baseball for my high school in Fallston, Maryland. I became a Brave when I played ice hockey at Quinnipiac College. I returned to being a Cougar when I started teaching and coaching at Haddam-Killingworth High School.
I’ve also identified with Orioles and Colts (the Baltimore variety), and I immediately allied with Patriots when the Colts galloped off to Indianapolis in 1984.
Suffice to say, I have associated closely with mascots throughout my life. If anyone ever tried to change one of them – say, turn my Quinnipiac Braves into Bobcats – I would feel like I lost a part of myself. I would fight, Cougar tooth and horseshoe nail, to keep my . . .
Wait a minute. That actually happened to me when my alma mater ditched its longtime “Braves” nickname in 2001 amid a growing trend of colleges rejecting Native American monikers. By 2005 the NCAA had adopted a policy that prohibited institutions with “hostile or abusive mascots, nicknames, or imagery from hosting any NCAA championship competitions.”
As a Quinnipiac alum, I was initially annoyed by the name change. But it didn’t take long to realize that my identity as a white man of Pennsylvania Dutch descent had absolutely nothing to do with the “Brave” mascot. So I moved on. Now, I root for the Quinnipiac Bobcats.
Things aren’t so cut-and-dried in Killingly. The Republican-majority school board in that Quiet Corner town voted on Jan. 8 to reinstate the “Redmen” mascot after it was dropped last summer and replaced in the fall with “Red Hawks.”
“This is my heritage,” said 73-year-old Killingly resident Jim Lemoine before the board’s vote. “I don’t like the idea of people coming in and telling us to change our name because of political correctness.” He added that reinstating the Redmen nickname “would mean everything to me. It’s my life.”
Well, Mr. Lemoine got his name back – along with his life, presumably. Killingly likely became the first school to recall a Native American mascot after officially dropping it. That’s a dubious distinction, considering the plethora of schools and universities that have parted ways with such monikers over the past five decades.
“Redmen” was among the most popular Native American nicknames before it was dropped by many schools. Natick High School in Massachusetts, for instance, dropped the name in 2012, and just last year, Cedar High School in Utah and McGill University of Montreal dropped their “Redmen” mascot, too.
Closer to home, Connecticut’s Manchester High School last year went from “Indians” to “Red Hawks” – just as Killingly had previously planned – while other schools have at least debated similar changes.
And last week, Democratic speaker of the Connecticut House Joe Aresimowicz said he’d like legislators to consider a bill banning all Native American nicknames and symbols at public high schools.
Back at Killingly, meanwhile, the Redmen have returned. The board said it is open to changes to the logo “so that it does not portray Native Americans in a negative way.” The board also said it would support “classes that teach the high school students about Native American heritage.”
But the damage had been done.
It didn’t matter that “multiple Native American tribes with historical roots in the area, including the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation and the Nipmuc Tribal Nation, had previously voiced their opposition to the Redmen.”
Nor did it matter that the mascot debate made Killingly the “laughingstock of the state,” according to Kevin Marcoux, Killingly’s athletic director. In particular, he cited the many mascot-related questions the school’s football team faced in its run-up to the Class M championship game in December.
“We lost that day because Weston was better,” Marcoux said. “But if you don’t think the mascot situation didn’t play a role in the outcome, you’ve never played a sport at a high level in your life. For that, I will never forgive this board.”
That game took place almost four weeks before the board reinstated the “Redmen” name. Maybe those football players should have boycotted the game because the school had not yet brought back the long-time mascot. Or maybe they simply understood that dumping a school mascot – especially one belonging to another group of people who deem it offensive – is actually the right thing to do.
We’re talking about a school mascot, after all, not a sacred icon. It’s not an earth-shattering event when Redmen become Red Hawks. In fact, it rights a racist wrong. Take it from this Brave-turned-Bobcat.
Barth Keck is an English teacher and assistant football coach who teaches courses in journalism, media literacy, and AP English Language & Composition at Haddam-Killingworth High School.
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