Monday, November 1, 2010

Mascot Wars II: End of the Rebel Colonel

I was sitting in the stands barking along with 10,000 other people one day and wondered why I was sitting surrounded by perfectly rational adults and not so rational students barking? Of course the answer is perfectly rational--WE are HUSKIES--so we bark for the team! We also wave our arms up and down to rhythms and have a secret W hand sign, sort of like "Live Long and Prosper," only harder. We become extensions of Huskies to assert our unity with each other and with our teams.

Coaches use avatars as a focus for their teams. Huskies, Wolverine, Beavers, Gators provide an endless list. The avatars embody values such as courage and endurance and loyalty and destruction (think Idaho Vandals) that good coaches roll into a culture and aspiration for team identity. This explains why the ironic anti-avatars of the sixties campuses remain such abominations, "slime like a banana slug" or "stretch like a gooey duck?"

Avatars and their corrupted cousin, mascots, do matter for the identity of the team and the identification of the fans. This means picking one or affirming one does matter in a communal and moral sense. The latest change occurred at University of Mississippi who retired the controversial rebel colonel and replaced him with the Rebel Bear.

The replacement of the colonel reflects a long discussion the state of Mississippi has had with itself and its black citizens about its relationship to the "lost noble cause" of the civil war fought to repel northern cultural aggression and of course to end slavery. Two decade long contentious battles over eliminating the confederate flag and rebel yells from the campus and games reflect this. Of course it becomes more complicated when the majority of the football and basketball players who now represent proud ol'Miss. are black players.

The colonel has a long history with the fans both with his romantic fetish of the noble cause, the iconic gentlema/soldier of southern imagination and as a social fetish where Mississippi alums and students hold their own outdoor summer dress parties and age old  keggers. The school informally prides itself upon its ability to hold a party; "we may lose a game, but we never lose a party," as the saying goes.

The school set in beautiful Oxford got it pretty much right in the end. They kept the name "Rebels"and had a plebiscite where students, faculty and fans could vote. They kept the colonel off the ballot despite a backlash. A strong majority voted for the bear.

The process has been slow and sometimes ugly but the decision to go with the bear reflected both a local totem, much like a badger or wolverine, and links itself resolutely to one of its greatest citizens writer William Faulkner and his harrowing story "The Bear." So the school has an avatar true to the spirit of a real avatar with noble virtues and tribal ability to align with its strength and power as well as one grounded in its regional history with deeper literary resonance, a tradition Mississippi has always prided itself upon.

This one did not require court cases but it did grow from the civil rights movement. The length of the controversy and depth of the emotions remind us again that avatars for teams reflect more than cute mascots to sell merchandise. This change arose from a complex renegotiation of identity with its past and coming to terms with a new reality of a multi-racial campus and world.

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