Editor’s Note: The print version of this article, which will be published Thursday, July 16, referenced Sen. Harckham’s bill, S8708A, before it was altered on Tuesday.
HUDSON VALLEY, N.Y. – Under public pressure and with sponsors threatening to sideline their financial support, the NFL’s Washington Redskins announced Monday that the organization was retiring its polarizing mascot, which faced renewed scrutiny during this period of civil unrest.
Locally, school districts with “race-based mascots,” such as Indians, are also feeling the heat. Democratic state Sen. Peter Harckham recently introduced a bill that would require districts like Mahopac to dedicate a portion of at least one school board meeting per year to the topic of racial sensitivity. The indefinite requirement would stay in place until the district disassociates itself with the mascot.
“Today, we can no longer simply dismiss the idea that school or team nicknames and mascots are innocuous and do not hurt or offend other people,” Harckham said in a press release. “The fact is, many mascots are grounded in, or borne from, a systemic racism that does not mesh with the democratic values we share and seek to protect. It’s time we hold honest, respectful conversations and public hearings aimed at understanding what’s wrong with these kinds of mascots and why they should be retired.”
Harckham’s bill, which was amended on Tuesday, initially threatened to withhold state aid from school districts with race-based mascots. Hackham, on Facebook, said that draft of the bill was “errantly ascribed” to him.
“That is not my bill,” the senator said in a Facebook comment.
Harckham’s 40th Senate District, which includes the Mahopac Indians, is down to one school district with the mascot after John Jay High School shed the emblem last week, finalizing a change that was put in motion long before the senator’s bill was written.
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.
“Some people will say we’re out in front, some people will say we’re way behind because it took us so long,” said Christian McCarthy, athletic director of Katonah-Lewisboro schools.
In a vote to replace to its longtime mascot, the John Jay school community was given the choice between Wolfpack or Ravens—but ended up with a third option, Wolves.
Wolfpack picked up 58 percent of the vote on June 22, according to district officials, but carried too much potential baggage, which they learned of while the vote was taking place.
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.
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.
Wolves and Wolfpack, which were seen as interchangeable throughout the selection process, 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.
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.”
Wolves also make a great symbol for the community, Bose said.
“If you can see beyond ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ and other silly stories that aren’t true, [wolves are] very strong; they’re survivors,” Bose said. “I work with these animals every day, but it still blows my mind what they do…They are packs, they’re family structures, they’re caring, they take care of one another. Essentially, wolf packs are a team.”
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,” he said.
Some on social media, for example, were quick to point out a potentially problematic connection with Wolves, saying a Yonkers-based gang also adopted the moniker. McCarthy said that connection was tenuous.
“If you look hard enough, you can try and find something negative about anything,” Katonah-Lewisboro’s athletic director 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 costs associated with switching mascots, including altering jerseys and designing and replacing logos. Some criticized the district for spending time and money on a mascot change 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.”
Katonah-Lewisboro’s AD was reluctant to place a price tag on implementing a new mascot.
“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.”
No action has yet been taken on Harckham’s bill, which must advance through committee before going to the Senate floor for a vote.