All the discussion in the comments of my last post about representational politics, real racism, the stars and bars, and the chief calls for a discussion about the racial and ethnic contours of team pride. (Also: hat tip to this afternoon's phone convo, Katka, and to this evening's dinner convo, JM.)
Most of you who know me know I'm from the south. My high school, South Greene High School, perhaps because it was in the south side of the county--the most southern of a southern county!--has as its mascot The Rebels, and its symbol (at least when I was there) was the confederate flag. As a high schooler, I never thought much about the flag's history, but saw it as something that demarcated South Greene from North Greene and West Greene. I can remember pausing sometimes when the Charlie Daniels song lyrics "Be proud you're a rebel 'cause The South's gonna do it again" were blasted at half time, and, superstitious athlete that I was, wondering whether we ought to align ourselves with the losing side (I honestly, believe it or not, didn't register Daniels's lyrics as the post-Civil Rights call-to-arms that they were until much later.)
Now, the South Greene-North Greene distinction seemed quite quaint, if incongruent: North Greene's mascot was the huskies or some such--not, as you might suspect, a legion of Union soldiers. But it occurs to me now that we (South Greene) were the only school in the county to not have African Americans on our teams. Maybe I'm blocking someone important, but the star black athletes went to Greeneville high (the only city school) or the other county schools. And when we went to state and played teams with black players, "our" rebel flags flew with a certain fierceness that I found intimidating at the time and now, frankly, I find embarrassing, especially because it's so obvious that the flags were conveniently doubling as tools of racial intimidation in the name of school pride. I know people in my home town won't agree with me, but I remember playing an all black team from near Jacksonville (I think) in the state semi-finals, and the flags did not get put away once during the game. And I remember going to summer camp with that same team in Pulaski, Tennessee, where the KKK started, and that team's van--and only that team's van--was vandalized with all kinds of KKK graffiti.
Anyhow, I'm fairly certain that my high school has curtailed its use of the flag--if not gotten rid of it altogether--in favor of this little colonel guy (pictured above right) who is likely ripped off from Ole Miss. On second thought, he (above) looks a little more like a pusher or pimp of some sort, but I'm sure he hates black people all the same.
I raise these points not to say how racist the South is, nor even to call my high school racist, but to make a more complicated point about mascot logic, how mascots were chosen in the first place, and how they are so often charged--and recharged--with regional, racial, and ethnic sentiments that, while often sublimated, forgotten, or denied, are still very persistent. I've thought about this for some time and no doubt someone has written about this more smartly and longer ago (if so, please give me the citation!). But I started thinking about this issue of college and team "pride" again this morning when my students and I were examining the Board of Trustee's comparison between the Fighting Irish and the Fighting Illini to account for why the school's mascot (Illini) is being retained while the "Chief tradition" is being retired.
No doubt certain mascots get chosen for their fierceness (Wolverines, Gators) or loveability (Prairie Dogs) or for general toughness associated with certain ethnicities or even, as is the case with the Volunteers, certain politico-geographic allegiances. In the case of the Fighting Irish, there's always a kind of hard core swaggering tough guy 'underdog' ethos that galvanizes Notre Dame fans.
All of which is to say that it becomes difficult to separate the at-times violent and damaging histories of the mascots from the enterprise of college athletics, or any athletics, which as Jim has pointed out below, quietly (or not-so-quietly) celebrates violence and--I would add--separation and superiority.
So what is the problem here? The mascots or the sports that require and invent the mascots?