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Carthage College in Wisconsin is the latest school to rebrand its athletics department as difficult discussions about racial justice and cultural appropriation grip higher education.
The liberal arts college in Kenosha will now compete as the Firebirds — a vibrant creature featured in Russian and Slavic mythology — following approval from the board of trustees Friday and months of consideration for a new name to represent the small campus nestled along Lake Michigan.
Its previous team names, Red Men and Lady Reds, raised questions about “the college’s commitment to racial and gender equity,” a news release said, and were sometimes interpreted as a pejorative reference to Native Americans. The school earlier amended its logo and name in 2005 after the NCAA banned “hostile” depictions of Native American imagery at its championships.
The latest change at Carthage applies to all 27 of the school’s NCAA Division III teams and stems from a task force created in November 2019, said university President John Swallow. The task force, which consisted of students, faculty, alumni and other university representatives, was formed in response to widespread dissatisfaction with the previous names, particularly from female athletes.
Though progress slowed during the pandemic, the task force ramped up following the May killing of George Floyd, a Black man who was detained by a white Minneapolis police officer in a disturbing video that sparked national unrest.
The task force, Swallow said, is one element of an “anti-racism plan of action” that he unveiled in July. Along with restarting the task force, the plan calls for closing racially disproportionate gaps in graduation rates, expanding resources to diversity initiatives and providing U.S. racial history in coursework.
“We had a name that was offensive to Native Americans and many people on behalf of Native Americans,” Swallow said. “But beyond that, we had to ask ourselves whether we wanted to continue to celebrate this part of this history.”
The work became more urgent in August after a white Kenosha police officer shot Jacob Blake, a Black man, setting off a new wave of protests, including one at which a white teenager is accused of fatally shooting two people.
“That only caused us to want to emphasize further, to deepen the work around systemic inequalities,” Swallow said. “It added new impetus to the anti-racism plan of action. It got us moving even faster. There’s definitely been more conversation among students.”
The board of trustees voted to retire the Red Men and Lady Reds names in August — two days before the shooting left Blake paralyzed. The board also decided to stop using its 24-year-old mascot Torchie, a caped man with flaming hair who conjures the image of a superhero, who was not popular among students.
Swallow said the Red Men name didn’t originate as a reference to Native Americans but evolved “very explicitly” into that. The name dates to 1920, when Carthage College, then located in Illinois, played a rival team named the Blue Boys, Swallow said. The college, affiliated with Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, was established in Hillsboro, Illinois, in 1847.
But over time, Carthage added feathers to its logo — then a large C with a circle around it. That image remained until 2005, when the NCAA issued its policy change, which also affected the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Chief Illiniwek mascot.
In response to the rule change, Carthage added a space into its name, becoming the Red Men, Swallow said. The women’s teams, once called Lady Redmen, have been known as Lady Reds since 1988.
The task force will now focus on selecting a new mascot, with plans to do so before the end of the school year, Swallow said.
Earlier this month, Valparaiso University in Indiana also announced that it will stop using the Crusader imagery in its logo and as its name and mascot.
The independent Lutheran university came to its long-debated decision Feb. 11 because the Crusader visuals have been “embraced and displayed by hate groups including the Ku Klux Klan,” according to a school message. Most recently, some rioters who breached the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 were seen wearing the Crusader cross.
During a series of holy wars beginning in the 11th century, Christian Crusaders from Europe battled Muslims in the Middle East, massacring Muslims, Jews and other non-Christians.
Other collegiate and professional sports teams, including the Cleveland Indians and the Washington Redskins, have abandoned fraught names due to public backlash, corporate pressure and increasing cultural sensitivity.
U. of I. athletics now competes as the Fighting Illini and formally retired the chief mascot in 2007, though some fans continue to wear outdated apparel that features the logo. The university has not selected a new mascot since.