In the 1990s and early 2000s, a handful of schools in Canadian university athletics explored and implemented nickname changes, ditching male-leaning monikers to appease interests in gender equity.
York was no longer the Yeomen, but rather the Lions. Alberta added Pandas to its Golden Bears. St. Francis Xavier went to X-Women; Acadia to Axewomen. Waterloo told its women’s teams they were Athenas and not Warriors — but then apparently realized that women, too, can be Warriors and changed it back after only a few years.
Eventually, schools quietly — with no official press releases or motions — dropped the “Lady” as prefixes to nicknames, realizing it was not only an antiquated term but also wholly unnecessary when paired with words like Dinos, Thunderbirds, Badgers, Gryphons, Huskies, and the like. The schools evidently came to the conclusion that all those things — in the real world outside of sports — could in fact be male and female and hence didn’t require a differentiation.
What an epiphany.
And so we are here in 2012, years after every other Canadian school that fell into this category made its decision on where to stand, that the University of Winnipeg picks up a discussion that had laid dormant on the downtown campus since it was first broached in the mid-’90s. Yes, the U of W believes Wesmen needs to be examined.
Perhaps if there was an undeniable groundswell against the name. Perhaps if the athletes putting on the ‘W’ felt an emotion even slightly above indifference. Perhaps if alumni were up in arms over a university being slow-footed to get with the times. Perhaps if boosters were showing up in droves to protest or threaten to pull their support.
Yet, none of this would seem to be the case.
As you’ll see in the coming weeks — and likely in the coming days as I work on a piece talking to current and former U of W athletes — the overwhelming opinion of that group falls in the emotional spectrum in a range from “never even thought about it” to “keep your hands off our identity.”
A Facebook page called Save the Wesmen stirred up some of the opinions of current and former U of W students and athletes, with around 700 “Likes”.
No such “Change the Wesmen” Facebook page exists.
Jeremy Read, the senior advisor to school president Lloyd Axworthy, is the frontman on media relations in this story and has been quoted saying this has been a long-standing issue for some of the university community. Vague as the comments are — and trust they will always be in these debates that dance along the fine line of political correctness — they do give some indication where this is coming from.
If there are members of the “university community” who have long had issue with the Wesmen name, they certainly aren’t vocal members of the current athletic department. If you were to head over to Duckworth Centre and spend the afternoon in its gym and offices talking to athletes and coaches and department administrators — the very people who wear the Wesmen name and sit in the epicentre of this debate — and take a poll on the issue … well, I beg you to find me anything near a majority in favour of change.
And that’s where this thing should begin and end. Read — and he’s the only one we can pin this on since Axworthy isn’t talking and all interview requests are being funneled to his senior advisor — believes the university moving into a new facility (the on-campus fieldhouse scheduled to be open in 2014) is the perfect timing to explore such a change, which is farcical of course. The new UNITED Health and RecPlex — a completely dank, witless name that sounds like it came out of an online PR name-generator — surely is steering some of this thinking. As the university fancies and champions itself as a beacon of hope and light for Winnipeg’s inner-city, the RecPlex is at the centre of that thinking. One need only read a few paragraphs from September’s ground-breaking press release to see how carefully the school is sculpting its next moves, hitting heavy on social and political buzzwords. So with the RecPlex — and the accompanying We Are The World inclusion theme — as the backdrop, U of W is proclaiming loudly that “Wesmen” is too exclusive, yet hasn’t provided the name of a single person who thinks it is.
For as much as Read — and by extension Axworthy, I suppose — would trumpet this as a festering issue that threatens the legitimacy of the school and its athletics teams, and one that could lead to alienation, it simply isn’t. If it was, it would have been changed in the 90s when every other school in Canada was discussing similar dilemmas. If it was, it would have been explored seven years ago when U of W reinvented itself with new logos that it now stamps on every piece of merchandise it can, not to mention the Duckworth court and walls. If it was, it would have been in the public conscience and loudly debated over the years. If it was, the comment sections and social media reaction to the stories that appeared in print, and on radio and TV the past few days would have been overwhelmingly pro-change.
None of those things happened, of course, making this story seem like U of W trying to drum up publicity for itself, which it has succeeded in doing. But in terms of trotting out anything other than vague allusions to some parts of a university community, there has been little in the way of anything tangible coming from the university, leaving us all to just trust Read’s word that there are a lot of people who feel left out because of a nickname. Where? Who?
If there is in fact a quiet anti-Wesmen faction and if that group does succeed in motivating a change, the university needs to be full disclosure in the results of its consultations. This should be openly democratic, not typically post-secondary wherein the university decides and everyone else just has to follow. A simple “we’ve explored this issue and taken into account the opinions of all involved” isn’t enough and, worse yet, would fortify the already existing angst towards universities and the belief that they rarely consider the desires of anyone but their most senior administrators.
Basically, if the U of W says there’s a majority of its “university community” that wants a change, we say prove it. As educators say to students, “show your work.” And if the buzz of the last few days is any indication, Read, Axworthy, et. al, are going to have a hard time doing that.
In truth, if the University of Winnipeg is something other than the Wesmen in 2014, it will indeed be because a few people with the power to do so made a decision on their own against the will of many; telling us all it was necessary, even though a resounding number of voices exist to tell them it wasn’t.