A new college crusade aims at controversial mascots

Alvernia University’s former Crusader mascot. AU is now the Golden Wolves.

In August 2001, North Greenville University, a tiny Southern Baptist school in South Carolina, changed its mascot from the Mounties to the Crusaders.

The student-supported move eliminated a symbol many found rife with negative hillbilly stereotypes and replaced it with one its president said “better represented the Christian college’s goals and purpose.”

A few weeks later, 9/11 happened, and suddenly at North Greenville and elsewhere, the Crusaders image was draped in controversy.

Through the ensuing political divide, with its contradictory concerns about Islamic terrorism and anti-Muslim bigotry, North Greenville has clung to its armored mascot.

For it and several other mostly small, mostly Christian colleges, that Crusader mascot, like the sword Richard the Lionhearted wielded against infidels more than eight centuries ago, possesses a double edge. While one side reflects a traditional view of heroic and chivalrous Christian knights, the other is a pointed reminder of religious intolerance and persecution.

Camera icon Alvernia Athletics
The Alvernia University logo before the school’s nickname was changed.

In Pennsylvania, Alvernia University jettisoned its Crusader mascot in June, and Susquehanna did the same a few years ago. Their experiences and the differing reactions to each offer insights into the ongoing debate over a name now freighted with concerns about political correctness and cultural insensitivity.

And whether the focus of these debates is Crusaders, Indians, or Rebels, there are no easy answers.

“The only solution that would absolutely end this [mascot] controversy would be to simply stop using mascots,” wrote California lawyer John P. Rhode in a Marquette Sports Law Review article.

While college sports nicknames related to Native Americans — Indians, Braves, Warriors — remain prevalent in these politically charged times despite sporadic efforts to eliminate them, opponents of Crusaders seem to be winning the battles at the collegiate level.

According to a 2014 Dartmouth survey, most of the 14 colleges with that mascot have either dropped it or are being pressured to do so.

In addition to Alvernia and Susquehanna, Clark, Wheaton, and Eastern Nazarene are no longer the Crusaders. Holy Cross and Valparaiso, two of the better-known schools whose teams bear that name, are studying the issue.

The most recent to abandon it was Alvernia, a Catholic school in Reading with 2,900 students and 21 Division III sports programs.

Founded by Bernardine Franciscan sisters in 1958 and coed only since the mid-1970s, Alvernia made the decision in March, 18 months before its scheduled launch of a football program.

It barely raised a whisper.

“The opposition was very small,” said Anthony DeMarco, Alvernia’s vice president for institutional advancement. “The sports teams through the years had never embraced Crusaders as their name. For the most part, everyone thought of themselves as Alvernia.

“There were a couple of people that loved being a Crusader on the athletic field. We said, ‘Great, that will remain the name in the Hall of Fame and when we honor all the old Crusader teams. We’re just going to change the name from this point forward.’ ”

What might have short-circuited any controversy was the identity of those most vociferously pushing for the change. It was the school’s sisters, many of whom teach there and all of whom reside in a motherhouse adjacent to campus, , DeMarco said.

“The sisters have never liked Crusaders,” DeMarco said. “They’re Franciscan, and they pointed out that St. Francis actually had tried to stop the Crusades. For years, they’ve been mentioning to our president that they’d like to see the name changed. And finally, he decided it was time to do it.”

In fact, many of the schools to drop the mascot have cited their Christian values as a factor.

The Crusades “were not very happy episodes in Christianity,” former Wheaton president Duane Litfin said. “They are not something we want to glorify.”

Once Alvernia opted to change, a survey generated dozens of proposed replacement mascots, everything from the Popes to the Flying Nuns.

Camera icon Alvernia Athletics
The new Alvernia logo.

Alvernia’s trustees eventually chose the Golden Wolves, a selection that also resulted from the school’s close ties to St. Francis. According to legend, the medieval Italian friar miraculously tamed the ferocious Wolf of Gubbio.

“And because AU is both our initials and the chemical symbol for gold,” said DeMarco, “Golden Wolves seemed a natural.”

At Susquehanna,  the transformation went less smoothly in 2015, seven years after the school’s longtime Crusader symbol had been transformed from a knight into a caped Tiger.

Opponents argued that the Susquehanna Crusader wasn’t even a reference to the Christian warriors. Instead, they said, it was the 1924 invention of a Philadelphia sportswriter, an allusion to the college’s reform-minded athletic director.

Those who supported the move, however, pointed out that until the 1970s, the football team’s helmets were adorned with the same Maltese cross Crusaders often wore.

“We have not been able to attach our identity to our own unique definition of Crusader,” Jay Lemons, Susquehanna’s president at the time, explained in 2015. “To continue down that path would be unproductive and at odds with the university’s commitment to building an inclusive campus where individuals of all cultures are welcome.”

Angry athletes and alumni instantly took to the internet to criticize Lemons and a decision they believed he and liberal professors pushed through.

A Facebook page — Crusaders for Crusaders — was formed, eventually attracting thousands of members and a litany of outraged comments.

“What a bunch of bunk,” posted a member, Joles Connelly. “I was at SU when 9/11 happened. There was no concern about us being the Crusaders. I graduated in 2005. At no time while I was there was there ever a mention of concern.”

In addition, an online petition meant to persuade the trustees to change their minds attracted 2,321 signatures.

(Susquehanna did not respond to several emailed requests for comment.)

Despite those efforts, in April 2016, the university’s mascot officially became the River Hawks.

That wasn’t an unusual selection. Wary of any mascot that reflects a historical event or person, these schools have selected birds and animals as replacements.

“Administrations more often than not turn away from finding more acceptable interpretations of history,” noted the Dartmouth study, “and instead [turn] to images that are practically immune from any and all criticism.”