Mascots And Monikers
I'm from St. Louis. I like Imo's Pizza. Many of you, especially those of you from Chicago, do not like Imo's Pizza. "It's not pizza," is the main complaint. "It's a sweet sauce and weird cheese on a cracker."
I agree. Which is why, years ago, I made up the term "blajda." It was a nonsensical word I came up with when having this discussion with a friend. People would be much more open to trying Imo's Pizza if it wasn't called pizza. If you told someone, "When you're in St. Louis, you have to try the blajda," they'd be much more open-minded. Call it pizza and people are going to expect… pizza. It's not exactly pizza.
I feel the same way about the word "mascot." There need to be two words. If I ask you, "What was your high school mascot?," you might say, "We were the Longhorns." And if I asked you if your high school had a mascot, you'd say, "Yeah, there was a Lenny Longhorn costume and a senior was chosen to wear it each year."
Mascot = the symbol of your athletic programs
Mascot = the person in the costume on the sidelines
To me, this is the root of so much confusion. If one was called a "mascot" and the other a "moniker," we could save so much confusion. What kind of confusion? Confusion over whether the belted kingfisher is being proposed as a mascot or a moniker.
Last week, I received a press release from the Kingfisher Task Force announcing their presentation to the Board of Trustees. The press release begins with the following two paragraphs:
On July 20th, 2023, Evan Lemberger of the Kingfisher Task Force spoke to the University Board of Trustees in support of a new mascot for the Urbana-Champaign campus. Going 17 years without an official mascot, students and faculty have been vocal about finding a new replacement. In 2020, both the students and faculty agreed on the institution of the Belted Kingfisher as the next mascot, but no action on the administrative level has since been taken.
Lemberger demonstrated how the campus at large is "ready to move on." In his presentation, he went over the mascot referendums and votes, different ways the Kingfisher has gained popularity on campus, Native empowerment organizations that have endorsed the Kingfisher or at least some replacement, and the endowment performances of other Universities that have gone through similar mascot changes. He also touched upon how the legacy of the "hostile and abusive" former mascot is still visible even though it's no longer official.
Because the word "mascot" has two meanings, I was immediately confused. I'll just take you through my thoughts.
- "Ready to move on"? From.. the Chief? The Chief was retired 17 years ago. They must be talking about the name Fighting Illini.
- "Other Universities who have gone through similar mascot changes"? I'm aware of several moniker changes. Are we talking about a moniker change here?
- "Legacy of the hostile and abusive former mascot is still visible even though it's no longer official"? Can't argue there (besides the "was the Chief a mascot or a symbol?" debate). If anything, the pro-Chief crowd has doubled down the last 17 years.
This led me to reach out to Evan Lemberger (head of the Kingfisher Task Force). I asked if the efforts of the task force were focused on 1.) adding a mascot on the sidelines during games, or 2.) changing the branding to the University of Illinois Belted Kingfishers. I noted how the student vote in 2020 was presented as No. 1, but that his presentation to the Board of Trustees sounded like No. 2.
He asked for five days to formulate a response and sent me an email yesterday with this response:
Any possible name change for the University is outside of the scope of our work. Our priority is that a new mascot, a new symbol be incorporated for the University. Obviously, we think the Belted Kingfisher is the best candidate for the next mascot.
I was still confused (and I hope you can see why). The first sentence states that the efforts fall under No. 1 above (add a mascot). The second sentence -- "a new symbol be incorporated for the University" -- reads to me like No. 2 above (moniker change). So I still don't have an answer.
I went back through the initial press release and thought that maybe the universities studied as part of "other universities that have gone through similar mascot changes" would be No. 1 (mascot change), not No. 2 (moniker change). So I asked him to provide the universities in the study. He responded this morning with a list of universities and all were universities which underwent a moniker change (Marquette, Arkansas State, St. John's, etc.). So if they're presenting to the Board of Trustees that there was no evidence of endowment erosion at these schools which all changed their monikers, the goal here must be a moniker change, yes?
I decided to dig further on their website and read the actual resolution adopted by the Urbana Champaign Senate that began the process that led to the Kingfisher Task Force. On the front page of that resolution:
WHEREAS, this resolution does not seek to change the 'Fighting Illini' moniker.
And the final paragraph of the 11-page resolution:
While some colleges ultimately decided to change the team's name in addition to adding a new mascot, this mascot proposal is NOT intended to serve as a team name change. Rather, it is a singular yet critical step in the right direction of creating new, inclusive traditions for students and our entire community.
This was my recollection. And why, every time I've seen a reference to the kingfisher, I thought of it in the mascot category. Indiana never had a mascot, and then they added a bison, and then they removed the bison, and then they added a man with a beard and a cowboy hat named "Mr. Hoosier Pride" and then removed him after only one year, choosing to go mascot-less again. That's what I believed this effort to be. Should a school that doesn't have a mascot on the sideline add a mascot? A bison to represent the "Hoosiers" and a kingfisher to represent the "Illini"?
I probably need to back up a bit. As I've written before, the history of the word "Illini" goes back well before the Native American imagery. The student newspaper was changed from The Student to The Illini in the 1870s, before there was a single athletic team. The editorial announcing the name change claims to have coined the word "Illini" at the time, writing this in 1874:
And then, like a rosy-cheeked bride, we are all aglow over our new name. Had you noticed it? Did you ever see it before? Do you know what it means and where it comes from? Sound it "trippingly on the tongue." Accent the second syllable and pronounce with us, Il-li-ni. Good! Try, try again until it fits the tongue as well as Illinois, simply a Frenchman's modification of the same word.
The term then existed for decades before Native American imagery was added. Before that change, "Illini" for Illinois was similar to "Hoosier" for Indiana or "Sooner" for Oklahoma or "Tar Heel" for North Carolina -- a colloquial term used for the people of the region. At the outset of college athletics receiving national attention and every university adding a moniker, "Fighting Illini" was adopted, Native American imagery was added (namely, Chief Illiniwek), and it was very clear that "Fighting Illini" was tied to Native American imagery.
There's much more that I'm not covering here. I wrote about most of it here. There's a misconception that "Illini" refers to a Native American tribe in the region (similar to when Eastern Michigan used "Huron" and North Dakota used "Sioux"), but that's not the case. According to this article from the Illinois State Museum, the term "Iliniwek" was used to describe several tribes in the region who spoke similar languages in the 1600s. But by the 1700s, the term had mostly disappeared, resulting in six tribes in the region in the 1700s (none named "Iliniwek") and, by the 1800s, only two tribes remained: Kaskaskia and Peoria. The main legacy of the word "Iliniwek" is that one version of that term used by French settlers ("Illinois") became the name of the state. And then "Illini" became the name adopted by the student newspaper in 1874.
With the retirement of Chief Illiniwek in 2007 and the elimination of the war chant in 2017, has the Native American imagery been completely removed from the term Illini? Obviously not. Fans choose to wear clothing with the Chief logo and still yell "chieeeeeef" at a very specific part of the 3-in-1. It is a tradition that some do not want to leave behind. And they make that argument quite loudly.
Which is what led to the pursuit of a mascot on the sidelines (at least the way I understood it). The name would stay, but add different imagery. My guess at the time was that the school might adopt a military-themed mascot given that the "Fighting" was added to "Illini" in 1921 as part of the campaign to build the football stadium as a World War I memorial (all of these links come from the Fighting Illini FAQ page on the University Archives website if you'd like to read more). But that has not been the direction this has gone. We first heard of an otter mascot and now we hear of the kingfisher mascot.
This is all similar, I believe, to the efforts at Stanford in the 1970s after they had removed "Stanford Indians" as their moniker. I rarely will cite Wikipedia here, but in the interest of time, here's a synopsis from the Stanford Tree entry which gets right to the point:
From 1972 until 1981, Stanford's official nickname was the Cardinal, but, during this time, there was debate among students and administrators concerning what the mascot and team name should be. A 1972 student referendum on the issue was in favor of restoring the Indian, while a second 1975 referendum was against. The 1975 vote included new suggestions, many alluding to the industry of the school's founder, railroad tycoon Leland Stanford: the Robber Barons, the Sequoias, the Trees, the Cardinals, the Railroaders, the Spikes, and the Huns. The Robber Barons won, but the university's administration refused to implement the vote. In 1978, 225 varsity athletes started a petition for the mascot to be the griffin, but this campaign also failed. Finally, in 1981, President Donald Kennedy declared that all Stanford athletic teams would be represented exclusively by the color cardinal.
However, in 1975, the band had performed a series of halftime shows that facetiously suggested several other new mascot candidates it considered particularly appropriate for Stanford, including the Steaming Manhole, the French Fry, and the Tree. The Tree ended up receiving so much positive attention that the band decided to make it a permanent fixture, and the Tree came to be embraced by the Stanford community at large.
Sound familiar? Student votes on things like "Robber Barons" and referendums to "restore Indians" and petitions for various mascot implementations. All that's missing is Alma Otter.
But where our situation departs from that -- and the central focus of this article -- is the elimination of the name. Stanford changed to "Cardinal" and then debated whether to switch to the Robber Barons, the Sequoias, the Trees, the Cardinals, the Railroaders, the Spikes, or the Huns. They ultimately chose to stay with the Stanford Cardinal, and the band's mascot -- the Stanford Tree -- became the mascot on the sideline during games.
I've been under the impression that the Kingfisher movement is one of perhaps several proposals give us a Stanford Tree. But then I read the press release and wondered if we were having our own "Robber Barons or Railroaders?" debate. I'm looking at orange and blue bird logos which mimic the old Chief logo (see above) and not proposed mascot outfits which seems to suggest that this effort is to eventually replace Fighting Illini with whatever otter or kingfisher is chosen.
I told Evan Lemberger all of this. That this was the article I was writing and if he had any clarifications from the Kingfisher Task Force he'd like included in the article to let me know. I did not hear back.
Which just serves to confuse me further. I've spent a lot of time going over all of the information here -- the resolutions, the presentations before the Board of Trustees, etc. And I've found myself wondering things which, on the surface, seem ridiculous. I spent an hour last night going back through all of this and asking myself if this student organization is under the impression that they're proposing a complete rebrand for the university athletic teams when they're really tasked with coming up with a mascot for the sidelines. And then I flip that back on myself and think, "Wait, am I thinking that this is an effort to add a mascot to the sidelines when the university is really looking to rebrand the athletic teams as the Kingfishers?"
I finally decided that all of my confusion rested on the word "mascot."
- Michigan State has a mascot. It's a Spartan. They're the Spartans.
- North Carolina has a mascot. It's a ram. They're the Tar Heels.
- Indiana has a mascot. It's the Hoosiers. But they don't have a mascot.
- Georgia has a mascot. It's an actual bulldog on the sidelines. They're the Bulldogs.
- Missouri has a mascot. It's not an actual tiger on the sidelines. It's a furry costume named Truman.
- Michigan has a mascot. It's the Wolverines. They've never had a mascot, though.
- Western Kentucky has a mascot. They're the Hilltoppers. It's an anthropomorphic blob.
Some schools have live animals on the sideline. Some schools have a costumed mascot that directly represents the university moniker. Some schools have a costumed mascot on the sidelines that has nothing to do with the university moniker. Some schools have a widely recognized symbol but refuse to have anything represent that symbol on the sidelines. And we use the term "mascot" to describe the animals and the monikers and the symbols and the costumes.
Which one is the Kingfisher supposed to be?
Edit: Evan did respond to my email this evening. His response:
I included those universities that underwent a name change as well as a mascot change because I wanted to focus on the schools that had to take on the most financial burden in their rebranding efforts. It was an effort to eliminate as many variables as possible. If Illinois wanted to adopt a new mascot without changing the name, and my assessment is reflective of the true nature of things, that would demonstrate to the board that our transition could actually be cheaper than most other schools.
Including new logos are standard procedure for a new mascot. The previous mascot had its own logo, so there's no reason we can't create and promote our own.