Recently, I discovered that I am now a Mammoth. Perhaps a wooly one.
The emotional wrench — as my alma mater, Amherst College, switched this year from being the Lord Jeffs to the Mammoths — wasn’t nearly as painful as I thought it would be. Especially because our old nickname, taken from an 18th-century British general named Lord Jeffery Amherst, is now identified with Native American genocide and our new nickname, along with a fierce new logo, isn’t tainted at all.
Perhaps followers of Washington’s NFL team, whose nickname and logo were altered for a while Wednesday to “Redhawks” by activists who created web pages resembling prominent news sites, could take a lesson from my experience.
No matter how long you have been emotionally attached to a nickname, even if you have cheered that name, sung the fight song hundreds of times and played a sport in that uniform, you’d be amazed how easy it is to change, to adopt a new nickname and mascot and be reasonably happy about it. If there is a good reason.
In 2016, Amherst College dumped its unofficial school sports nickname because scholars had studied letters from General Amherst in 1763 to others in the British military in which he endorsed giving blankets infected with smallpox to the Native Americans to cause an epidemic and “extirpate this execrable race.”
In April, Amherst College adopted a new and official nickname with Mammoths trouncing the likes of Purple and White, Valley Hawks, Wolves and (groan) Fighting Poets. Luckily, “Hamsters” was routed in the semifinals.
Some will say, “Oh, that isn’t like ‘Redskins.’ ” Wrong. It is exactly like “Redskins.” For more than 50 years, I’d been a Lord Jeff, right down to a picture on my wall of me on the freshman baseball team in an Amherst uniform. It doesn’t matter if your school nickname is goofy. You identify with it. Some of us, a lot. You wouldn’t have gotten far telling my late mother that she wasn’t a Blue Devil.
At Amherst, I thought it odd for an American school to go by a nickname drawn from a British general. Didn’t we have a revolution to throw those folks out? Also, attaching “Lord” to yourself, in a nation allergic to royalty, was stuffy.
But I’d learned that you sometimes live with ridiculous or offensive team nicknames. Long ago, my parents told me the NFL team in Washington, which I adored, had “a bad nickname.” But, someday, that would change, they said. So, don’t worry about it. You’re just a kid. We all sang “Fight for old D.C.” We assumed that adults with a sense of decency would fix the name in due time.
However, different people define “due time” differently. For example, Amherst College defines it as: When you find out that you are wrong, fix it. For D.C.’s NFL team, in a brief 26-year slump, owner Daniel Snyder defines it as: Never, ever.
On Wednesday, the team issued a statement: “This morning, the Redskins organization was made aware of fraudulent websites about our team name. The name of the team is the Washington Redskins and will remain that for the future.”
There is, however, another approach. Time, and new information, change perspectives. In the French and Indian War, General Amherst treated his French enemies with gallantry. But, he wrote, “you will do well to try to inoculate the Indians, by means of blankets, as well as to try every other method that can serve to extirpate this execrable race.”
Was such germ warfare carried out? Not germane. Lord Jeff was all for it.
Were the corpses of smallpox victims catapulted over the walls of barricaded fortresses in medieval times? Yes. But I don’t want to be nicknamed the Catapults.
Amherst College, named after the town of Amherst, not after the general, felt no need to change its identity. But the nickname Lord Jeffs, adopted when Amherst was just thought of as a long-ago war hero, was specific to the general.
From the time I learned that I was a Mammoth and no longer a Lord Jeff, it took a long time for me to adjust: about five minutes. I googled a list of every college and pro nickname. There are dozens of Eagles. Only one Mammoths. Then I realized the menacing mammoth logo, with enormous curled tusks (and no wool in sight), was far better than the Amherst logo for the previous 196 years ,which was, as far as I can remember, nothing at all. What’s a Lord Jeff (or a Hoya)?
I realized how often I’d typed “a mammoth win.” Why not “a Mammoth win”?
My wife immediately said, “Mammoths are extinct.” To which I responded, “And Lord Jeffery Amherst, General Genocide, is alive?”
Personally, I don’t cringe at the word “Redskins” more than, maybe, 10 percent of the time. But then, generally, I’m kind of insensitive and, specifically, I’m not a Native American. If I were, I suspect that General Amherst, and his enthusiasm for smallpox blankets as peace offerings, would remind me of the origins of the infamous expression “the only good redskin is a dead redskin.”
Until Christopher Columbus arrived, smallpox had never existed in North America. Because the disease comes from living in proximity to livestock, Europeans had built up some immunity over centuries. Native Americans were defenseless. Smallpox epidemics now are considered one of the reasons that Columbus met so little sustained resistance in the New World. The locals were too busy dying.
Nicknames such as the Lord Jeffs and the Redskins are two illustrations of the same issue. In the beginning, no one means any harm. Team owner George Preston Marshall was a racist, but it’s more likely that, as a flashy promoter, he wanted an excuse to put teepees and a marching band in headdresses on his field.
But once you know better, and don’t change, that’s when the harm starts. Especially to you, as others see your true nature. So, I’m one happy Mammoth.
I don’t expect the Washington owner to change the name any more than I expect him to hire and keep an excellent general manager or learn how to identify and sign long-term a top-dozen quarterback when he has one in his hands.
But someday he might visit the Natural History Museum and see the mighty skeleton of Mammuthus, which still draws crowds 11,000 years after its demise. Now there’s a nickname that’s almost unique in sports, used by only one Division III school. Those big tusks sure would look good on a burgundy-and-gold helmet.
At the least, it would be a mammoth improvement.