Don-troversial: USF’s Debate Team prepares to join mascot discourse

USF’s award-winning debate team is once again dialing up for discourse on Dec. 1. This time, they will attempt to conquer one of the most talked about divisions in the University community today: the Don.

On Oct. 28 of last year, the SF Foghorn published a letter to the editor titled, “Campus culture represented in our mascot,” in which longtime design professor Rachel Beth Egenhoefer made her case against the Don as the icon and mascot of the University. 

This came only weeks after a Sports Illustrated article painted in excruciating detail the depths of sexual misconduct perpetrated by USF’s men’s soccer team over the past decade (and the campus culture that shielded the assailants from accusations or justice). Egenhoefer wrote, “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 assault to occur at USF.”

Foghorn Editor-in-Chief Zoe Binder reflected on these conversations almost one year later, on Sept. 14, 2022, in an honest Letter From the Editor, “We would like to ask you, dear students, what our representative of school spirit should look like. What do we want to see in a mascot that encompasses our values, but also lifts our spirits?” 

On Dec. 1, USF’s debate team will debate the University’s definition of the Don in a community open forum and ask if the Don is an appropriate symbol for our university. On one side of the debate, the removal of a mascot could be considered a drastic measure that threatens an institution’s history — but there is growing precedent for doing so. The Washington Commanders divorced their franchise name and logo from a derogatory slur for Native Americans in 2020 (after 87 years) and St. John’s University in Queens, New York, tweaked their nickname from the “Redmen” to the “Red Storm” in 1994. 

Precedents, articles, and layers of unsettling history have turned this issue into a haze of controversy for USF students, faculty, and alumni: Does the Don represent USF’s values? Debate Coach Robert Boller sees the forum, in which the public audience will be encouraged to cross-examine both sides, as a rare opportunity to create space for a difficult conversation. “It’s a symbol,” Boller said. “It says something about a University, or at least I think it should. Does it represent us? 

“Right now, it’s something people don’t even know what the heck it is. And the connotations, interpretations around it: Is it patriarchal? Does it reflect the colonial era? Is it a violent thing? Is it misogynistic? Or is it more innocuous, androgynous? I think it’s the perfect time for us to have this conversation, because it’s not just about the mascot — it’s about bringing an entire academic community together, and saying, ‘What does USF want to be?’ Why don’t we have a conversation about what ‘Changing the World From Here’ [USF’s slogan] even means?” 

Dan Johnson, member of the debate team and fourth-year political science major, is ready for that conversation, and to debate in defense of the Don. “The definition of a ‘Don’ as some sort of noble makes sense; I can see the University wanting students to emulate that behavior,” he said. “I don’t think the term ‘Don’ needs to be changed, but the physical representation of the mascot needs to be looked at. The mask, the mustache…I can see how a Zorro look-alike is misleading from the definition. I kind of feel like USF ripped off the Zorro movie.”

Understandably, the expungement of the most recognizable icon of the University of San Francisco is a decision that involves many stakeholders, including athletes and alumni who may be remembered for representing the Dons. Would the change isolate USF from history we take pride in? In a FogPod episode from Oct. 1, sports editor Chase Darden spoke to former Dons basketball star and current Miami Heat player Jamaree Bouyea about a potential rebranding. 

“You have Bill Russell, Dons is kind of a cool name, the mascot is a little off, I guess… But I think the name of the USF Don is something that’s iconic and something that’s basically legendary to the city of San Francisco,” Bouyea said.

The alumni association did not wish to comment on their stance on the upcoming debate.

Part-time rhetoric and language professor Michael Hammond said some students want to change the mascot over concerns about how the Don references harmful stereotypes. “[The students’] main reasons were the Don’s association with colonialism and concerns about the swashbuckling, macho stereotype embodied by Don Francisco.” 

Second-year business major Nandika Murugabel is preparing to argue against the mascot and believes that two things can be true at once: the Don, a symbol reminiscent of Spanish colonization of native peoples, does not reflect our institutional values, and — it’s just not that great of a mascot in the first place.

“I’m from India; India was colonized by the British for years, we only got independence in 1947. It was devastating to find out [another symbol of colonization] is the mascot we have. And also, the Don is just ugly. I have to be honest. It’s ugly. Everyone says it looks like Farquaad. I actually feel no school spirit when I see that thing walk onto the basketball court. How do you cheer for that?” said Murugabel. “I’m a person of color. It’s upsetting to look at. Also, it’s ugly.”

Some professors, like rhetoric and language professor Patrick McDonnell, have taken interest in the student body’s passion for this issue and are reflecting on the larger context of a branding change for social progress.

“It’s always great to think about what [symbols] project. How do they affect students, emotionally, psychologically, historically, culturally? We also have to honor the past and look at the intent of a particular image, historically,” McDonell said. “Changing a mascot can be a very positive thing to reflect contemporary values, interests, norms, and populations; another view is that mascots or any kind of symbol allows us to always engage with the past.” 

As the debate team prepares to present their arguments to the campus community Dec. 1 in Fromm Hall, objectivity is the name of the game. “We’re not trying to advocate for anything,” Boller said. “We’re trying to have a vigorous proposition and defense of whether we think this mascot is offensive or not, and not just get emotional on how we feel and what our opinions are.” 

An alumni of USF himself, Boller believes a well-executed debate on this matter is in the best interest of the school, and will result in productive conversation. “This University means a lot to me,” he said. “And the time is right for the University to re-evaluate who we are and who we want to be.”

Editor’s note: Foghorn staff members Nora Ward and Katie Inthavong are members of the Debate team. 

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