Time to rethink mascots

High school basketball season is upon us again and passions are already high when you look at social media like Twitter and Facebook.

Students, parents and fans take great pride in their teams and for good reason.

In some areas, the nicknames of the high school teams serve as the town’s identity to outsiders, and when someone insults or disagrees with your mascot, it can feel like someone is taking shots at you as well.

There is a currently a bill in the Michigan Legislature that could ignite those passions even more, especially here in the Upper Peninsula.

The proposal would cause schools who use certain nicknames and mascots to lose state funding, which could be devastating to many districts.

According to the bill, the Michigan State Board of Education, along with approval of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, would create a list of “race- or ethnicity-based classifications” that schools would be prohibited from using.

The Michigan Department of Education could then choose to withhold money from schools that continue to use those names, logos or mascots.

Depending on what is placed on the theoretical list, that could affect quite a few teams, including U.P. teams like Marquette (Redmen), Gladstone (Braves), Newberry (Indians) and Escanaba (Eskymos). I’ve covered all four of these teams and it’s clear how much the nicknames mean to their fans and communities.

This issue has been around for years. In fact, ESPN’s “Outside The Lines” did a profile on how Marquette was dealing with it 18 years ago, and although things have quieted down, I’m guessing things might heat up again if this bill gets traction.

Marquette seems to have made a lot of progress since that ESPN feature as the use of the Native American headdress logo seems to have stopped and the focus is now on the block “M” version. That might allow them to keep the Redmen nickname, but other schools might not be so lucky.

Escanaba is in an interesting situation as they can use the argument that its nickname represents the town due to the “Y” in “Eskymos” and that it’s just a play on words.

However, that costumed mascot will probably have to disappear, and I’m surprised that it’s lasted this long.

I’d say that is more offensive than what Marquette and the other schools have.

I know I might still be seen as an outsider in the U.P., but I’ve had more than enough experience with this issue.

As I wrote in a previous column, my high school in Minnesota got rid of its nickname, the Braves, back in the 1990s and people embraced the Blaze after the school almost burned down.

I wouldn’t want any school to catch on fire, of course, but it does show that a community can come together again after a divisive issue.

It got even worse at another institution I attended, the University of North Dakota, where the controversy over the Fighting Sioux logo went from fiery spirit to a raging inferno.

The issue been documented so well and so often, I’m not going to rehash it much. However, after a ridiculously long process, the nickname has now gone away and UND is now the Fighting Hawks.

Sure, people still refer to the school’s teams as the Sioux, but the Hawks is gradually being embraced. It might take an entire generation for that to fully happen, but it will eventually.

As far as the bill in the Michigan Legislature, I don’t see it going anywhere. It’s much too broad of a net and I don’t think many representatives would be in favor of cutting funding to schools over school mascots.

It’s a rather harsh way of going about fixing an issue, and supporting this bill might hurt legislators’ re-election possibilities, which is what it may ultimately come down to.

In a nutshell, the bill isn’t going to accomplish anything in the state legislature, so schools and their fans shouldn’t be fretting over it too much.

However, what I think the bill will accomplish is to make schools and communities take another look at their priorities.

How much longer do they want to put up with this? Is compromise a possibility? Maybe keeping the team name, but eliminating the logo and the mascot? All these questions should be considered before the next school year.

This isn’t an easy topic to deal with and I know there are passionate feelings on both sides. Trust me, I get it.

However, schools and communities will eventually have to ask themselves this question: is it worth fighting this issue any longer?

If funding cuts are now being proposed in the legislature, it’s probably not.

Ryan Stieg can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252. His email address is rstieg@miningjournal.net.