Axemen is an Archaic Mascot, Even Without Sexism

Both my sons attended South Eugene High School. Like thousands of other families over the decades, we chose the school we wanted our children to attend and then found a house nearby where we could live. Many of our neighbors had the same priorities. South is in this way the silent center of a particular intersection of family, education, and history.

We valued South for what it had already achieved. Then we did what we could to honor and add to that legacy. As a native Midwesterner, I value tradition more than most typical West Coasters. History is more than what your browser loses when your computer crashes. “Tradition,” somebody once said, “is allowing dead people to vote.” In Chicago, our politicians took that quite literally.

And so I greet the fate of the South Eugene High School Axemen with some trepidation. I’m glad to see that the school’s leadership is determined to let the bathwater swish around long enough to be absolutely certain there’s not a baby in there somewhere.

The mascot name should be changed — but carefully, slightly, and thoughtfully.

My inspiration comes from watching Washington, DC struggle with its professional football team, the Washington Redskins — an archaic racial slur against Native Americans. The Washington Post editorial page has banned the name from its editorials, in solidarity with those who believe it should be changed.

Of all the solutions proposed for a more politically correct name, the most clever suggestion was this. Don’t change the name at all, but only the mascot. If a talented graphic artist could draw a fearsome potato, the team could continue being called the Redskins. America could finally have a team in solidarity with its fans, cheering from their couches!

It’s not easy to break with history while honoring it, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. “Axemen” presents two problems. It is not gender-neutral, and, for some, it connotes violence.

Even if that violence is only against trees, some would insist we should grow beyond images of physical might. Machines now do the heavy lifting in the timber industry, and almost everywhere else in modern America.

Physical prowess is no longer held in such high regard. America needs only a few left tackles, and their job is to protect the smart and swift quarterback. Every high school would like to have it both ways — a mascot that also fits for the chess team.

Team sports and school solidarity play an important role in adolescent identities, but physical strength was never intended as an end in itself. It was a means to garner the trust of others. Before self-esteem took over our culture, there was just plain esteem. Who is it that others admire? Who will be our leaders?

Isn’t that what we want shaping our teens’ aspirations? How many high schools can say they had two graduates serve as presidential cabinet secretaries — at the same time? Neil Goldschmidt (class of 1958) was President Jimmy Carter’s Secretary of Transportation, while Cecil Andrus (class of 1948) was Secretary of the Interior. A school that has produced three governors, a U.S. senator and a presidential candidate is not finished forming leaders.

The metrics of leadership have shifted beneath us, but we haven’t updated our symbols. Heavy machinery killed off John Henry and his ilk a century ago. Pocket calculators crunch numbers faster. Computers beat humans at chess. Our need for leaders remains.

Just a few years ago, those with the most answers would inspire others to follow. But answers are quickly becoming as outdated as manual chopping tools. We all carry supercomputers in our pockets today. Answers are easily available. The trick now is to ask the best questions. Asking is the new power. Curiosity is the new brawn.

Assumptions and authorities should be questioned. Eugene has attracted those questioners since the 1960s, but nowhere are they more thickly settled than in south Eugene.

We can’t call our team the Askmen, because it’s not gender-neutral and it sounds like something it’s not. But the South Eugene Askers would tell the story of who we are becoming, without losing the story of who we were.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.