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What's in a team name? A mascot controversy has become a part of the Springfield College story

By Grace Berry

Having that one specific symbol around a team is crucial, but what if that team nickname sparks controversy?

Washington Redskins, Atlanta Braves, Cleveland Indians, Kansas City Chiefs, Chicago Blackhawks. All of these names may serve as a team identity, but they also portray the people who originated them: those who identify as Native American.

Native American names and imagery have been used for numerous sports for many years without much thought.

However, while fans of teams with these names may not see a problem with their mascots, other people consider them to have racist implications. Seeing a cartoonized Native American can be problematic to younger indigenous peoples’ identities--and the way that Native people are perceived by others..

In a 2013 article from the Washington Post, a representative from the Oneida Indian Nation, Ray Halbritter, was quoted saying, “The use of such an offensive term has negative consequences for the Native American community when it comes to issues of self-identity and imagery.”

Professional sports teams for the most part have resisted pressure to change their Native American mascots, but there has been a substantial amount of change on the collegiate level.

Over the past 30 years, more and more colleges have been changing their Native American mascots. Back in 2005, the National Collegiate Athletic Association, better known as the NCAA, required all participating schools to evaluate if there was any offensive imagery involved with their mascots. At the end of this investigation, the NCAA concluded that 19 schools contained “hostile and abusive names, mascots, and images,” and required each school to change its nickname. Big name schools such as Arkansas State University were the Indians, but then became the Red Wolves, Northeastern State University was once the Redmen then switched to the RiverHawks, and Quinnipiac University was originally the Braves, but changed to the Bobcats.

Years before the NCAA conducted these investigations, Springfield College had its own confrontation with the issue. From 1967 through the early '90s, the Springfield College men's teams were commonly known as the "Chiefs."

Up until the early 1990s, there wasn’t a wide-scale controversy about the “Chiefs” nickname. Students wore apparel with a cartoon Native American male. Male student-athletes wore jerseys with what was designed to represent a stern looking Native American “Chief” across the front. Every time student-athletes walked onto the field, they were introduced as the Springfield College Chiefs.

The Springfield College athletic logos throughout their history are shown in comparison. Missing is the current athletic logos, which employs the traditional block "S". (Courtesy of Grayson Carter)

It wasn’t until 1994 that former president Dr. Randolph Bromery introduced the idea of changing the mascot to something less controversial. While this may have seemed like a progressive move on the part of Springfield College, many current students at the time, as well as alumni, were not so quick to jump on board with the initiative.

The Co-Sports Editor of The Springfield Student in 1994, Matt Siegel, was a strong voice against the name change. In a column titled “Perspective: In Spirit, Mind & Body, Keep the Chiefs,” Siegel wrote what he believed to be a solid argument to maintain the “Chief” nickname.

“The Indians are upset with the nickname Chiefs, that it is demeaning. Is it demeaning to dolphins that Miami uses them as their mascot? I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be known as the Springfield College Grey Squirrels,” he wrote.

Many alumni shared similar beliefs. The main argument seemed to stem from the traditionalist aspect of the long-standing nickname, without taking into consideration how this would affect Native Americans.

Professor of Sociology at Springfield College, Dr. Laurel Davis Delano, studies the topic of Native American mascots, and was on campus during the time of the name change. She explained that there is such a thing as a "positive stereotype". While these stereotypes may not seem detrimental on the outside, they are actually hurting the targeted group.

“A huge problem with the mascot issue is that nobody is intending harm, and they don’t consciously have negative feelings about them,” she said. “Thus, many people have trouble understanding why there are problems. They don’t know the research findings, and they don’t understand how these so-called ‘positive stereotypes’ can be harmful.”

Davis-Delano explains that some of the ways these mascots can be harmful to Native Americans include "lowered self-esteem, lowered capacity to imagine one's own Native American community to make a difference, and experiencing more stress/anxiety."

Further, Davis-Delano adds, the “research demonstrates that exposure to these mascots reinforces stereotypes among non-Native people” and that they “generate a hostile climate for Native Americans.”

Not every student-athlete on campus was considered to be a “Chief.” The female student-athletes were called the “Maroons.” Even though the female nickname was more commonly associated with the color, it still had a negative connotation in some circles. Maroon, also meaning “fugitive black slave,” was deemed problematic for the women’s sports teams.

A 1998 log of the “Nickname Committee’s” minutes explained the frustration female student-athletes had on campus during the time of the gender distinction.

A member of the committee was quoted explaining, “Before we became the Pride, the media didn’t know what to call women on campus.”

The College not only wanted to remove the “maroon” name, it also wanted to have a united mascot, something that “Chief” didn’t allow.

At the time of the proposed name change, the College put out two surveys to understand what the community would want as the new mascot. One went to alumni members first, then another went to current students.

The question on the alumni survey was simple: which of these nicknames should be the new mascot? The four options included the Athletics, the Pioneers, the Spirit, or the Pride.. Not all, but a large number of alums voted for something not even on the ballot. They wrote in “the Chiefs.” Because of this result, the student survey only consisted of two options: the Chiefs or the Pride. The final tally counted 736 students in favor of maintaining the Chiefs, while only 22 people voted for the less-popular Pride.

Despite a robust write-in campaign to retain the 'Chiefs' nickname, the school opted to go with the Pride. Even though it didn't have much support in the poll, it did fit the six pieces of criteria that the College wanted to meet. The mascot had to “not be prejudicial to any race, culture, nationality, gender or ethnic group…, symbolize the mission of the college…, represent both male and female athletes…, be nonviolent in and of itself…, athletes, coaches, and the Springfield College family would feel a sense of pride when their team is referred to by nickname…, [and] could be visually symbolized in a manner that would be appropriate if placed on uniforms, promotional material, and for general marketing purposes.” Since the Pride seemed to fit these guidelines the most out of all of the potential mascots, it was chosen to represent the new generation of Springfield College.

While a majority of current students are unaware of the former Springfield College mascot, there are still some reminders of it on campus. One of the most notable tracings of the former Chief mascot comes from the men’s lacrosse team. Since the early 1980s, the team has been calling themselves the “Chief Dawgs.” To the lacrosse team, the term is a badge of honor, and does not intend any harm.

“It’s not a racial thing. We use it as a source of pride,” explained men’s lacrosse head coach Keith Bugbee. “We only kind of use it when we are doing things the way we should, when we are playing tough, when we are playing with discipline, being good charactered people.”

Ranging from the professional level, to the high school level, all the way down to little leagues there are still plenty of sporting teams that have not opted to change their mascots. Springfield College may have been ahead of the curve when rebranding from a Native American mascot, but there are still many places that have yet to do so.

Created By
Grace Berry
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Graphic courtesy of Grayson Carter

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