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School Nicknames: Let There Be Color

July 07, 2002|James Ricci

Not long ago, state assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg (D-Los Angeles) tried to make California the first state to ban race- and ethnic-based school nicknames. After clearing some intermediate legislative hurdles, her much-amended measure ran into a brick wall of local tradition and Republican sneering about political correctness in the Assembly.

Sooner or later, however, well-meaning politicos are bound to try again to bring this enduring manifestation of breezy stereotyping into alignment with more highly evolved modern sensibilities. If they succeed, about one-fifth of California's 1,292 sports-playing high schools, by my reckoning, will have to re-nickname themselves and adopt new mascots.

School nicknames compose a small but venerable subcategory of jock talk. Many a sports-bar laugh fest has turned on obscure and colorful names. (No state matches Illinois in this regard; what other can boast such transcendencies as the Cobden Appleknockers, the Hoopeston Cornjerkers, the Freeburg Midgets and the Effingham Flaming Hearts?)

Perusing the list of nicknames of California's 1,292 high schools, I calculate 258 of them to be potentially offensive to somebody somewhere. By far, the largest category is Native American names, which are claimed by 82 schools. The most common, both in the Native American category and overall among the 258, is Warriors. Other Native American nicknames are Indians (15 schools), Braves (10--although two, Sherman Indian High School in Riverside and Noli Indian School in San Jacinto, would seem perfectly entitled to the moniker), Aztecs (8), Apaches (4), Redskins (4), Chieftains (2) and Comanches (1).

Thirty-five are Spanish-derived, and thus Latino referencing. The most popular among them is Dons (14), followed by Matadors (8), Conquistadors (5), Vaqueros (3), Gauchos (3) and Toreadors (2).

Muslims, meanwhile, well could take offense at Sultans (2), and Moors, Arabs and Sheiks (1 each). Neither, surely, are they delighted by all those Crusaders (14 schools).

The second most common among the 258, is Vikings, which, at first glance seems innocuous enough. Yet the invocation of those infamous early marauders might well rub the more sensitive among modern Danes--one of the world's most civilized people--the wrong way. They're not the only northern Europeans potentially umbraged, either, having company in the Scots (5), Celts (1), Celtics (1), Gaels (2) and Fighting Irish (2).

The point here is, once you start cleaning up nicknames, where should you stop? Racial, ethnic and tribal names aren't the only ones that conflict with present social values. Warlike Spartans (25) and Trojans (16) abound and, aside from any uncomfortable resonances they may hold for Greek Americans, don't exactly bespeak the peaceableness we're constantly begging our teenagers to practice. The same applies to the state's plethora of Marauders, Diablos, Devils, Raiders, Pirates and Rebels.

And, for a place ostensibly governed by the people, should California feel comfortable with such an abundance of Kings, Emperors, Monarchs, Royals, Regents, Chancellors and Nobles but only one Democrat (and no Republicans)?

Schools picked ethnic nicknames, I believe, not to deride the referenced peoples, but rather to appropriate their perceived dash, bravery, fear-someness or exoticism (an obvious exception is Redskins, a pejorative name given one people by another; its equivalent would be calling the La Palma JFK Fighting Irish the Micks, or the Venice Gondoliers the Wops).

A minority of names look not to ethnic stereotypes, but to something closer to home, namely, occupations associated with their regions. Thus, the Eureka Loggers, the Hollister-San Benito Haybalers, the Montebello Oilers and the Napa Vintage Crushers. Such names are among the most endearing nowadays because they celebrate a disappearing localism in an age of mass media, chain-store retailing and national fast-food franchising.

More often, however, the naming of high school teams has been a kind of delinquent release from the workaday. While the majority of California schools send their athletes into competition bearing the names of ferocious animals and valiant fighters, not all do. Some, through whimsy, are delinquent even from the bellicosity of the general name-giving (bravo and Anaheim Cornelia Connelly Koalas, the Los Olivos Dunn Earwigs, the Burroughs Burros, the Laguna Beach Artists, the L.A. Ribet Academy Fighting Frogs).

Getting worked up over school nicknames is a lot of wasted energy, a futile exercise in abstraction that has nothing to do with real-life discrimination against categories of people. Take it from an erstwhile Crusader (Catholic Central High, Steubenville, Ohio) who never took seriously for a moment his nominal association with that medieval mob of inadepts, delusionals and murderous plunderers.

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