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Making the team

The NCAA recently announced a ban on most Native American–related mascots and images at its postseason sports tournaments, putting university teams like the Florida State Seminoles and Central Michigan Chippewas under pressure to change names. Probably a good idea; after all, mainstream US
culture long ago scrapped images like Little Black Sambo and Chief Knockahoma, which were such an uneasy but pervasive presence in my childhood.

Although I love sports, the whole idea of team names is a bit beyond me. Competing in sports requires the summoning up of a certain amount of hubris and chutzpah—hence the old standby Lions and Tigers and Bears. But why are so many nicknames so deflating and embarrassing? Some of my favorite mascots reflect the sociology of their areas: the University of Nebraska Cornhuskers, Purdue Boilermakers, and North Carolina Tar Heels. But some of the worst names reflect the sociology of privilege and heritage at small, private colleges: the Ephs of Williams, the Lords of Kenyon, and the Battling Bishops of Ohio Wesleyan. And the crowning follies are their women’s-team monikers, like the Lady Ephs, forsooth, and—as if lifted from a cheeseball Monty Python comedy sketch—the Battling Lady Bishops. (Where are the politically correct lobbyists when women are ridiculed by sports nicknames? Maybe they’ll be the next to get their day in NCAA court.)

Nonhuman animals make the best mascots, of course. The Florida Gators, NC State Wolfpack, Arkansas Razorbacks, Georgia Bulldogs, and even Michigan Wolverines sound like fun to play for or root for. (Which wasn’t the case with the name imposed by my teenage-league softball coach: the Vixens. She knew that foxes were fierce and quick, which sounded good, but she had no clue that “foxiness” and especially “vixens” carried an oversize steamer trunk of psychosexual baggage. I lodged my objections, but to no avail. Every game day my face was as red as our cherry-colored jerseys.)

At Skidmore the Wombats would have been delightful and funny, slyly and gently self-deprecating (wombats are plump, passive, emphatically nonathletic creatures), and truly distinctive. They could have put the college in a class with the famed minor-league Toledo Mudhens and Albany River Rats. But Skidmore was suffering from a touch of identity crisis in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and the Wombats were voted down; only a serious, noble mascot could bolster the self-esteem of shaky Skiddies. As it happened, the Thoroughbreds made an excellent Plan B—an animal totem of fiery athleticism and also a nice nod to the college’s Saratoga location.

For me, probably the most perplexing team name is a color, like the Harvard Crimson. Not only is it grammatically awkward for fans and sportswriters to talk about, but it can’t possibly conjure up images of physical prowess or skill. “Don’t miss the action when the Beige clashes with the Chartreuse!” just doesn’t cut it. And if a team can be a color, why not other sensory perceptions? Let’s cheer on the Salties, the Big Itch, or the Shrill Whine… And what’s with the Ohio State Buckeyes? Except for falling to earth with a plop, they hardly suggest vigor and activity. Perhaps vegetables and sports should never mix. I mean, even if it replaces an obnoxious nickname like the Redskins, I just can’t see myself cheering for the Mighty Soybeans. —SR