A mascot is associated with a university’s athletic teams as a lucky charm for their success and as a symbol of something reflective of an institution’s personality.
Long Beach State had Prospector Pete for many years as its mascot. The name recognized the campus’s first president, President “Pete” Peterson. The prospector reflected his frequent comments that gold had been discovered on the campus — “the gold of education.” Our founding year of 1949 made “’49ers” an obvious nickname for students and alumni. In California, a ‘49er evokes the 1849 Gold Rush so pivotal to the state’s history.
By 2014, our athletic teams had adopted The Beach as their favorite moniker — a unique choice as no other college team has “beach” in its name. Prospector Pete, the cartoonish mascot with the big head dressed in jeans and a plaid shirt, made fewer and fewer appearances. Pete’s image had no relation to “The Beach” or to the teams’ new uniforms. Students were using “Go Beach!” as their favorite cheer, and by 2015 the university had fully embraced The Beach as a nickname and Beach Athletics as the official term for the intercollegiate athletics program.
It was in this context that I learned that our indigenous students and faculty had, for many years, expressed concern that we glorified a symbol connected to the attempted genocide of the Native Americans — people who lived in these lands for thousands of years before the storied gold rush of 1849. It seemed a teachable moment in our history to consider a 21st century representation. Thus, a team of students, faculty and alumni discussed possibilities during the summer of 2018. They agreed that history should be honored and contextualized, and that current students deserved to have a say in designing a mascot related to today’s campus identity.
This led to a plan to choose a new mascot, while retaining important elements of the past as well as a new significant and contextualized home for our statue of the Prospector. This plan for a new mascot and a new home for the Prospector was implemented by Associated Students, Inc.
Of course, not everyone agreed. Some were nostalgic and rightfully proud of the campus’s history. After all, the motto, “Nothing could be finer than to be a ‘49er!” is still seen at games. Some who have voiced their concerns felt that students were “taking over” the university. Others questioned my personal fortitude, wondering why I “didn’t I stand up to the so-called demands of the students?” Still, others inaccurately called Beach students “snowflakes” who can’t manage dissenting views. Some of the critics truly cared about the statue. Others, focused on the future of the name, ‘49er. A few cared about the actual mascot. The most frequent and urgent criticisms came from some who seemed to resent my attention to a “minority” voice.
Here’s the thing: It’s a mascot, not a real person. Current students discussed issues civilly and voted overwhelmingly for a new mascot. We teach democracy — the system that simultaneously protects minorities and listens to majority votes. Critics can’t, logically, say students are snowflakes for reacting to something so trivial as a mascot, while vociferously attacking them for doing so. It’s either important or it’s not.
After online polls and a student referendum, I ratified the choice for a new mascot: the shark. Our university will remain The Beach, our baseball team will remain the Dirtbags, and people are encouraged to identify as a ‘49er — a term that continues to hold significance as we recognize our 70th anniversary this year. Several organizations on campus also use the term, including the Daily ‘49er student newspaper, ‘49er Legacy Society, and the '49er Foundation.
But when we unveil the new mascot next year, we’ll seek to scare as many athletic opponents as possible with shark images and music, and delight as many fans as we can with high fives from our menacing shark-costumed mascot. Notice the shark’s connection to The Beach and to our world-renowned Shark Lab.
Civil, robust debate is at the heart of democracy and I’m proud to say, we live what we teach. Thank you for being part of that debate. I can promise you that the coming academic year will amaze and delight.