This is a tirade that I’ve been meaning to go on for awhile now. And after watching Penn State get smacked around tonight and seeing this on ESPN’s webpage, I’ve decided to do it. Political correctness has once again reared its ugly head in the world of sports. This time, the victim is the mascot of the Ole Miss Rebels, Colonel Reb.
The character of Colonel Reb is actually based on a real person; a man named “Blind Jim” Ivy, who was peanut vendor in Oxford and a fixture at Ole Miss sporting events for over 50 years. The son of a former slave, Ivy was beloved by the student body and the community alike until he died in 1955 (seven years before segregation came to an end). The cartoon version of Colonel Reb, which is still being used today, was created in the 1930s, about the same time the school’s athletic teams were renamed the Rebels (they had previously been called “the Flood”). Although Caucasian, the caricature very much resembles Ivy’s goatee, hair, and face. But obviously, what he’s supposed to be is an old southern plantation owner, complete with walking stick, long-tailed suit, and string tie.
The administration of Ole Miss finally banned Colonel Reb from appearing on-field at sporting events in 2003, caving to accusations of him representing the south’s history of slavery and racism. A vote among the students was held to select a new mascot, which failed miserably, because, according to some, keeping Colonel Reb was not one of the choices and unofficial polls found that as many as 94% of the student body wanted him to stay.
It was from this Charlie Foxtrot that the idea of selecting Admiral Ackbar first came to light. For the Star Wars illiterate readers (including you Todd), Admiral Ackbar is of the species Mon Calamari from the watery planet of the same name. He was the leader of the Rebel Alliance’s attack on the second Death Star in Return Of The Jedi, in which he uttered his most famous line “It’s a trap!” He has brown skin and yellow eyes, and sort of resembles a catfish.
Some say that electing Ackbar would allow Ole Miss have a ‘rebel’ leader again for their mascot without anybody being able to cry racism. Others got behind it out of spite, choosing the most ridiculous thing in hopes of illustrating just how stupid this whole controversy is. Unfortunately for both groups, Lucasfilm has apparently declined to allow Ole Miss to use their copyrighted character. And while the proud Star Wars nerd in me thinks it would be hilarious, I would put myself in the latter category. There is no good reason for Colonel Reb not to be Ole Miss’s mascot if the student body wishes him to be it.
As my grandfather used to say, “When you try to please everybody you’ll end up pleasing nobody.” I went thru a somewhat similar situation in my college days at Shippensburg. There had been calls for Ship to drop the Red from Red Raiders because of the implied reference to American Indians. Ship resisted, and has instead tried to portray us as pirate-y raiders as opposed to Indian-y ones. Now, Ship had never had an on-field mascot that I know of, and when they opened it up to suggestions, a few of my marching band buddies and I put forth the idea of the Shippopotamus, or Shippo Hippo. It was far better than the alternative of this dumb-looking red pirate parrot, it was versatile in that it could be either cute or mean, plus our fight song is called “The Horse” and hippopotamus is actually Greek for ‘water horse’. When it was put to a campus vote, Shippo won; but the administration went with the bird anyway. So what we ultimately got was “Big Red, the red-tailed Raider Hawk”. But what really made the excrement hit the fan was that at the exact same time, our archnemesis, IUP, ceased to be the Indians under the same pressures and became the Crimson Hawks. So now, the Steelers and Ravens of the PSAC have almost identical mascots. Isn’t that lovely?
My question is simply “Where does it end?” Although it can be well-meaning, political correctness in practice usually amounts to a small group of self-appointed, self-righteous bullies imposing their will in situations that are none of their business. Our Constitution grants everyone the right to free speech and free expression, but it doesn’t grant anyone the right not to be offended. If Colonel Reb or the Shippensburg Red Raiders or the Florida State Seminoles offend you, go to college somewhere else. If the Washington Redskins or Cleveland Indians or St Louis Rams partly owned by Rush Limbaugh offend you, don’t buy a ticket.
And furthermore, who gets to decide exactly what is offensive? If the color red is offensive to American Indians, could the half dozen or so golden things Ship plays every year be offensive to Asian people? (I’m not making that up. Within Pennsylvania Division II football, we have Golden Eagles, Golden Bears, Golden Rams, and Golden Knights.) Might the Milwaukee Brewers be offensive to Mothers Against Drunk Driving? Or are the San Diego Padres offensive to atheists? How about the Tampa Bay Rays offending the family of Steve Irwin the Crocodile Hunter? Now, I’m illustrating absurdity by being absurd, but I’m also making two points. First, if you think about it hard enough, you can find a reason for anything to be offensive to somebody. And secondly, in nearly all instances, team names and the mascots that go with them are some reflection of that city’s history and culture, not a means of degrading or insulting any race, ethnicity, or whatever.
If I were in charge at Ole Miss, I would politely tell the NCAA and NAACP and anybody else who complained about Colonel Reb that we would be more than happy to do away with him and all other references to the Civil War the day after that baseball team up in New York ceased to be the Yankees. After all, Yankees killed thousands and thousands of Mississippians in the Civil War, and it’s a painful memory for us too.
Unfortunately, Emperor Steinbrenner’s star cruisers can repel firepower of that magnitude.