Our Mascots, Ourselves

By May 16, 2022
a purple and gold cartoon growling tiger
A legacy LSU tiger logo.

This country is huge, and it contains so many different landscapes and climates. But aside from that, outside the South, this country is starting to bleed together for me. The same outlet mall with a Niketown, a Nordstroms Rack, a Belk or Burlington Coat Factory. Fast food, a gas station which is always the same no matter what ridiculous sign says out front. There are tons of theories about this, tons of names for this – American Shopping Mall Realism, Strip Mall Realism – but just like pornography, you know it when you see it. The internet, this overwhelming beast that has sharply divided this country, has also helped along the inevitable flattening of the American landscape, physically and culturally. The great United States of delivery warehouses.

But there are some ways in which we claim the places we are from, claim some intangible force that makes us Southern or Midwestern or a New Englander. Within us, our animus seeks ways to be externalized, seen, recognized. People argue with me about this. That our education or profession or some other bullshit does this. Not here, not down here. Down here, the way we sublimate our desire for war and show who we are is every Saturday afternoon across the region. I of course, mean college football, and the mascots we have chosen to stand behind.

a painting of 14 college football mascots with all with human bodies but 9 with animal heads in their school colors.
The most recent “Southeastern Conference Family Portrait”, which includes the most recent expansion teams, Mizzou and Texas A&M and the outdated Ole Miss mascot, Colonel Reb. Painting by Don Collins.

I will punch the next person who tries to tell me where the South begins and ends using some nonsense like Trump voters or the Mason Dixon line or some other bullshit that people who root for Harvard give. The South is the Southeastern Conference (SEC). I hate to make this about North versus South, but here is where I have to do that. The South remains the place where the nation expresses all of its sins. Genocide, treason, Black trauma, resource extraction, the South is the place where the nastiest parts of American history are closer to the surface. But a people can’t live like that. We can’t live like that. Our lives in the South are so interconnected and constantly threatened by Mother Nature, we have to have some mechanism we can all rally behind, be proud of, and embrace that isn’t about any of the foulness that the North pretends isn’t clogged in their pipes either. So we pour all of our love and rage into the traditions, legacy, and power of the Southeastern Conference. And because of that, the Southeastern Conference is the best, most powerful conference in the country.

Ctrl [Alt] Self at Westobou Gallery, Augusta through August 6

Where was I? Mascots!

The mini countries that our region has within our borders are fiercely protected, raucous clans of fun and pride. Roving warrior bands travel together to battles named The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party, the Magnolia Bowl, the Iron Bowl, Clean Old Fashioned Hate, The Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry. The rituals vary from one to another, and most of them are almost pagan. Members of the clan of Arkansas, whose mascot is a Razorback, hunt, kill, and eat their mascot. In Auburn, there is a sacred tree where they show jubilation after a victory. In Death Valley, opponents are made to walk past Mike the tiger, in a show of intimidation. The pure, all white Bulldog of the house of UGA has their own private hallowed ground between the hedges. 

Nancy Friedemann-Sánchez’s Casta Paintings on view at Halsey Institute in Charleston through July16

I know all of these things. I can’t think of a time when I didn’t know these things. I know how to respect and root for each one of these teams, in case I need to support the SEC against an out of conference opponent. I know The Grove, Starkvegas, Rocky Top, War Eagle. In trying to explain this phenomenon to someone who went to Ohio State, they said they would never root for Michigan on pain of death. The idea was so foreign to me I nearly spit out of my drink. How could I cheer for Alabama against Clemson, or Notre Dame? they asked. Because they are SEC I said. I said they are SEC, but what I really said was that they are my family. What Southern person doesn’t have kin all over this conference? I’ve got family in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama. When Auburn’s sacred trees were poisoned by an Alabama psychopath, both LSU and South Carolina discussed sending oak trees to Auburn. I don’t need to reiterate the cooperative nation across the entire conference after Katrina, after the tornadoes in Alabama, on and on. 

Mascots, and the teams they represent are also how we address family problems. Ole Miss (University of Mississippi) has always been…well, an uncomfortable cousin sometimes. Their mascot until 2010, was Colonel Reb, a decidedly unpleasant looking confederate general. It was announced in 2010 that they would keep the Rebels nickname, and become the Rebel Bears. Which, okay, thats fine. There was hope as the flagship university shed its former confederate skin, the state would follow. The Bears mascot never really stuck, or it never really felt right. I certainly just addressed my opponent in the Magnolia Bowl as Ole Miss, or Little Brother. In 2017, it was announced that Ole Miss would be changing their name again. Linebacker Tony Fein coined the term “landshark” and it’s accompanying hand gesture after defeating Texas in the 2008 Cotton Bowl. Fein died of an overdose the following year. 

the flag of Mississippi with two red vertical bands, two gold bands and a blue field in the middle with a magnolia flower surrounded by stars. the text reads in god we trust.
The new state flag of Mississippi.

And yet, the state of Mississippi would not be swayed. In 2001, a referendum was passed to start the process of designing a new flag without any confederate iconography. And that’s about as far as things got. Until the SEC got involved. On June 18 2020, the commissioner of the SEC, Greg Sankey, announced that not a single championship of any SEC sport would be played in the state of Mississippi until a new flag was adopted. On June 19, the Great Satan – the NCAA – announced that all post-season play would be banned from the state of Mississippi. On June 28, the Mississippi Legislature passed a bill retiring the previous flag and creating a commission to create a new one. 

When they won a football game, they torched couches. That was something I really vibed with.

This magazine traveled to Jackson, Mississippi this spring, our first trip together as a work family. We drove into Birmingham to meet with some museum friends, and as I was easing off the interstate, I saw a sign directing me to SEC headquarters. “Do you need to go on a pilgrimage, Jasmine?” Brandon asked, as I squealed and waved my hands. Just being that close was enough for me. On the way back, I promised everyone that we could stop in Birmingham again, to go to the Buc-ee’s. For now, the only places where you can participate in the sheer insanity that is a Buc-ee’s is Texas, Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky and Florida. There are Buc-ee’s in development in the remaining SEC states. 

a yellow circle lined with black with a brown beaver wearing a red hat
The Buc-ee’s mascot, which was modeled after Bucky the Beaver, the mascot of Ipana toothpaste.

Texas, which has always demanded to be treated as something else, something different, located in the South but not Southern has always gotten their wish and floundered around in mediocrity, desperate for the glory that was last theirs in the 1960s, minus Vince Young. This magazine’s expansion into Texas comes along the same timeline as the University of Texas submitting a formal appeal to join the SEC juggernaut. Texas, with their Buc-ee’s and Longhorns and SXSW and Keep Austin Weird and that bridge with the bats living under it officially joins the SEC in 2025, along with the Oklahoma Sooners. The addition of Oklahoma obviously makes my definition of South as bounded by the SEC complicated. In the most conservative I’ll admit to ever being, I rejected the expansion that added Texas A&M and Mizzou, mainly because I thought the West Virginia Mountaineers were a better fit, culturally and socioeconomically. When they win a football game, they torch couches. That was something I really vibed with. Mizzou as a program was also just really uninspiring. Not to mention their embarrassing smack talk about the SEC that Georgia steamrolled out of them for their first game as a candidate team. Eventually, I came around (as though Greg Sankey down there in Birmingham gave a shit about what I thought about his decisions), reminding myself that St. Louis, like Baltimore, is one of the farthest north points in the South. But then, what about Norman, Oklahoma?

Over the years of working and living and nearly dying in the South, I’ve heard all kinds of terms meant to describe everyone who isn’t a white cis American male. Global south, global majority, all kinds of terms that I felt were a lot of different ways to avoid saying ‘Black people.’ But as the world and the worm turns, does a term like Global south make more sense? Aren’t we reaching a point where I have more in common – politically, environmentally, economically – with someone from Tornado Alley than with someone from Delaware?

It’s something that I will continue to think about well past 2025 when Texas and Oklahoma join the SEC. It’s something that I will probably think about for the rest of my life.

cartoon college football logos in alphabetical order. Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, LSU, the SEC, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Mezzo, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas A&M and Vanderbilt.
Legacy logos for the current SEC teams. Courtesy the SEC.

I was mean to Texas earlier in this essay, but I was just playing. They will spend a couple years getting the piss beat out of them and then they will be family, and they will learn when to chant SEC SEC SEC after a victory and will learn how to call the dogs and all of that. And we will learn about Bevo and Hookem and whatever else Texas does. Same with Oklahoma. Oklahoma’s mascot isn’t a person or an animal, it’s a Conestoga wagon. A wagon pulled by two white ponies. I sat, dumfounded trying to puzzle out how we’ll absorb a non human non animal mascot into our SEC family. We’ve had people, animals, and soon we’ll have a wagon. But. They’ll be SEC and we’ll have to get a new family portrait. In a few years I’ll have learned whatever I need to so I can cheer on a wagon.

Mascots might be silly, or trivial, or ridiculous, but not down here.

Down here, it just means more.

SEC football returns on September 3, 2022.

This essay is part of Burnaway’s year-long series Nonhuman.

Find out more about the three themes guiding the magazine’s publishing activities for the remainder of 202here.

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