Editor's Note: This article has been updated with additonal quotes and information.
CROSS RIVER, N.Y. - In a vote to replace to its longtime Indians mascot, the John Jay school community was given the choice between Wolfpack or Ravens—but ended up with a third option, Wolves, as the new school emblem.
Wolfpack, chosen for its uniqueness and message of togetherness, “handily” won the June 22 vote, according to district officials, but carried too much potential baggage.
For starters, “Wolf Pack” has at times been used as an incendiary term, particularly by some in 1989 to describe the “Central Park Five,” a group of Black teenagers falsely convicted of attacking a white female jogger in New York City.
Wolfpack was chosen for its literal meaning, but John Jay paused the selection process to avoid starting its new era off on the wrong foot, especially after shedding its polarizing Indians mascot. The Katonah-Lewisboro School District delayed announcing its new mascot by two weeks. During that time, administrators consulted with colleagues, community members, scholars, and the NAACP.
“In light of the renewed focus on racial justice taking root across the country, we felt it important to pause and learn more—to consider whether a word used to demean in one context can remain free of that negative association in another context,” read a letter co-authored by Schools Superintendent Andrew Selesnick and Athletic Director Christian McCarthy.
They said North Carolina State University is also “protective” over its Wolfpack mascot. Over the years, the college has engaged in legal battles with other schools over its use. Under pressure from NC State, a Division III school, Keuka College, changed its mascot from Wolfpack to Wolves in 2016.
In the fall, the Katonah-Lewisboro Board of Education voted to move on from its Indians mascot after decades of debate over its appropriateness. A Mascot Selection Committee made up of administrators, coaches, teachers and students was formed.
Wolves and Wolfpack were seen as interchangeable throughout the selection process, but the latter was chosen for its uniqueness. Though not a league rival, Gorton High School in Yonkers already laid claim to the Wolves mascot. But the desire to be original was outweighed by the desire to be inoffensive.
“In light of the feedback we’ve received, we believe the best decision is to select Wolves as our new mascot,” Selesnick and McCarthy wrote.
In retiring its Indians mascot, John Jay was a bit ahead of the curve. Democratic state Sen. Peter Harckham, a resident of South Salem, introduced recently that would require schools with “race-based mascots” to dedicate a portion of at least one school board meeting per year to the topic of racial sensitivity
Nationally, professional sports teams are also feeling the heat. With sponsors threatening to sideline their financial support, the NFL’s Washington Redskins announced Monday that it is retiring its name. A new mascot has not yet been selected.
“Some people will say we’re out in front, some people will say we’re way behind because it took us so long,” McCarthy said.
McCarthy previously told The Katonah-Lewisboro Times about the district’s desire to select a mascot with meaning to the area. Ravens, the other finalist, recently returned to the area for the first time in about 100 years, McCarthy was told by the town’s historian. Additionally, “Raven Rocks” is an overlook at nearby Ward Pound Ridge Reservation.
Wolves or Wolfpack, which received the most submissions in a community survey, were obvious candidates before the process even began, given that the school is located just 2 miles down the road from the renowned Wolf Conservation Center.
“Wolves have a strong community connection and can be a proud symbol for our students and our schools,” Selesnick and McCarthy wrote.
Rebecca Bose, curator at the Wolf Conservation Center, said the non-profit organization is excited about the mascot change.
“We’re in each other’s backyards,” Bose said. “It was a no-brainer. And hopefully this will bring about collaborations on the future. I hope that we can bolster our internship program, our volunteer program. Everybody’s excited and hopefully it will open a lot of doors for both sides.”
McCarthy said he feels the response has been mostly positive, though some in the community continue to push back against the change.
“Like any change, it takes a little bit of time,” McCarthy said.
Some on social media, for example, were quick to point out problematic connections with Wolves, saying a Yonkers-based gang also adopted the moniker.
“If you look hard enough, you can try and find something negative about anything,” McCarthy said. “We’re not a gang. We’re a high school that’s creating an awesome connection to a conservation center that’s right in the backyard. For us, it’s all about the positive.”
Many have also pointed out the financial cost associated with switching mascots, such as branding, replacing logos through the school, and altering jerseys. Some criticized the district for spending time and money on its mascot in a time of crisis.
“From my point of view, anyone who brings up that point, it’s an excellent point,” McCarthy said. “When it comes to that, I’m sympathetic to all these opinions that come in on it. I don’t disregard any of them. I think they’re all valuable.”
McCarthy was reluctant to place a price tag on what the mascot change.
“The bottom line, when you make a mascot switch, to be successful, there are certain things you must do, otherwise it will not be a successful transition,” McCarthy said. “Branding is an incredibly important part of what must be done.”
Once the dust settles, McCarthy hopes the community will embrace its new identity.
“The most important thing for us was for it to be meaningful and not random,” McCarthy said. “And that it could bring us together and not in any way push us apart, because we’ve already been there and done that.”