Letter to the editor: Campus culture represented in our mascot

As a content warning, the following letter includes reference to recent events and coverage of sexual assault and harassment on campus. I thank the Foghorn for their reporting and the many students who have contributed to the recent coverage in the interest of creating a better USF.  

When the Sports Illustrated article “A Predatory Culture, a Viral Reckoning—and Now What?” broke, my phone—like those of so many in the USF Community—lit up with messages as the story spread across social media and local news outlets. When I sat down to read the full article I felt a range of emotions. 

In some regards, nothing surprised me; there was nothing necessarily new in the article, which compiled together years of stories and evidence into one expanded and very public story. As I read the powerful testimonies of numerous students reporting incidents only to then be ignored, I couldn’t help but think of all of the stories this article did not mention. As a female faculty member at USF for the past 12 years, I’ve witnessed numerous students struggle with reporting sexual assault, sexual harassment, and other inappropriate behavior only to experience the same tepid responses and lack of resolution outlined in the recent article.  

I applaud Lili Makensie’s recent op-ed in the Foghorn that expands the conversation of survivors to include other gender identities and traumatic situations. In addition to the female-identifiying students whose stories I’ve heard, and whom I assisted with reporting and providing crisis resources, I’ve also had queer male-identifying students share stories of being assulted and harassed as well. As Makensie points out, the issue goes beyond the soccer team, beyond cis-gender female-identifying students, and even beyond students. 

I too, as a faculty member, have experienced inappropriate harassment on campus. These issues, of course, extend far beyond USF and are rooted in patriarchal systems of oppression in our larger culture. These systems continue in part because of prevalent stereotypes, including that of our own “Don.”  

GRAPHIC BY JAMES SALAZAR/SAN FRANCISCO FOGHORN

One of the main problems the recent Sports Illustrated article highlights is that the third-party investigation found “the number of sexual misconduct incidents within the men’s soccer program over a decade does not represent a pervasive culture.” I’m left asking then, if it’s not “a pervasive culture,” what kind of culture does it represent? And what kind of culture does USF as a whole represent?  

In a recent meeting, the USFFA (the full-time faculty union at USF) had with our new Provost Chinyere Oparah, she called for a cultural reset. 

After the many tragedies, mishaps, frustrations, pandemics, and issues USF has experienced in the past several years, I couldn’t agree more. I truly appreciate the many listening sessions Provost Oparah has had to listen to the voices of the USF community beyond those in administration. I am eager to work with her and with others to co-design a new USF. To help precipitate this cultural reset then, I cannot help but call out a need to examine the USF mascot.  

The Don, according to the USF website, was “once used as a fancy way to address Spanish nobles,” and has evolved to mean “a distinguished gentleman. You know the type.” But I’m not sure: do I know the type? Many other common definitions refer to a Don as a leader of an organized crime family. The Urban Dictionary refers to a Don as  “a man who is very sexy and powerful. This man can control the hearts of all women, while being caring and still sexy.”   Beyond the inherent sexism in this image, I also have questions about the use of this  “highly stylized version of an old-school Spanish look” as mascot.   

As a Design Professor who teaches visual communication and idenitity, I can’t help but see the connection between a masked male mascot—known for controlling women, organized crime, Spanish colonization, unapologetically lassoing and sword fighting, and riding off on his high horse—and the culture that has allowed the many accounts of chauvinistic behavior, sexual harassment and assult to occur at USF. The images and symbols we choose to surround ourselves with have an impact on how we perceive ourselves, and in the case of schools, can affect students’ self-esteem and overall climate.  

In the summer of 2020, in the midst of the racial reckoning in the U.S. that followed the murder of Geroge Floyd, many corporations took up re-branding inativies to reassess their image. Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben’s, Eskimo Pies, Land O’Lakes, Mrs. Butterworth’s, and many more brands took on new more inclusive identities. Many pro sports teams also began renaming and rebranding initiatives including the Washington Football Team, the Cleveland Indians, and Kansas City Chiefs. Many colleges have also changed mascots for a variety of reasons.   

In some of my classes, I teach about how we communicate with images, colors, symbols and words in visual literacy. I’ve presented many of these branding case studies to students and analyzed what is being represented, to whom, by whom, and how. I tell my students that as designers, we do not just make pretty pictures. There is inherent meaning behind whatever we create, and it is our job as designers to be sensitive to what we communicate and how. What does it mean that we put masks and mustaches on people in our community? 

The images and symbols we choose to surround ourselves with and represent ourselves with have an impact on our collective well-being. I know that many other students, faculty, and staff agree that a university which defines itself by its social justice mission should not be represented by a Don.  

I am not suggesting that simply changing our mascot will magically make the sexist and traumatic experiences on campus go away. There’s a lot of work to be done. I understand and support the students’ demands for an apology from the administration and to take accountability for the harm that has been caused not only for those named and recognized in the case against the men’s soccer team, but for all of the incidents that have occured at USF and in support of all survivors in our community.  

As we move forward in what I hope will be a true cultural reset, in what I hope will be an open dialogue on campus about supporting survivors and inclusive intersectional change on campus, we need to ask: what kind of culture do we represent? And what might that culture look like in a mascot? When we cheer on not only our sports teams, but our entire USF community, I’d like to cheer for a mascot that represents an inclusive, progressive community.  

Rachel Beth Egenhoefer

Professor, Design, USF

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