October 31, 2006

Trying to Bear With a Big Red Identity Crisis

Print More

Trying to get in the spirit of Halloween, I stumbled upon the first annual Ivy League Mascot Masquerade Ball. At the event, most of the costume selections, like the nickname that goes with them, are a bit questionable. They range from the mundane and unoriginal (Princeton Tigers, Brown Bears, Columbia Lions) to the historically awkward (Penn Quakers) to the colorfully pretentious (Harvard Crimson). Other costumes seem ambivalent. The life of the party is Keggy the Keg, Dartmouth’s fitting mascot who is trying to make the other guests forget that Dartmouth is actually embarrassingly named The Big Green by offering free keg-stands. Humping the sofa is Handsome Dan, Yale’s bulldog continually reminding everyone that many Yalies prefer to be called by their pompous alias, Elis. It is quite a spectacle to say the least.

One guest, the most ambiguous of them all, is missing. The Cornell mascot has yet to make his grand entrance into this celebration. Perhaps he got too drunk pre-gaming with a case of Beast and didn’t realize it was already well past midnight. More likely, however, he is brooding over how he will answer the inevitable questions about why he is dressed like a bear when the Cornell nickname is the Big Red. It is doubtful that he will come up with an appropriate answer…


Nicknames matter in sports. Absorbed in the mythology surrounding the athletic universe, names and mascots are an essential part of team identity for fans and players alike. These nicknames are symbolic and many have come to take on a life of their own, no longer needing to be accompanied by the city, university, or region to which they are attached. In New York, for example, this time of year everyone knows what team you are referring to when you say the Giants. (Yes, Joe Buck, there is only one major sports franchise in New York called the Giants. In the post-1957 era it sounds ostentatious when you say the New York Football Giants, so stop.)

Good nicknames are original and make sense. The best nicknames, however, seem destined and perfect. This year’s New Orleans Saints are the ideal example of a team truly defined by its nickname. They may not be saviors, but just by playing hard each week — and surprisingly winning for a change — the real-life Saints provide redemption, conviction and inspiration for an entire region torn apart by Hurricane Katrina.

A few years before he died, the diabolically pious Hunter S. Thompson said that if sports were a religion, they would be exceedingly more popular than Catholicism. Thompson’s prophecy does more than merely point toward the truth, it reflects the nature of our world. In this world, nicknames and mascots are like the sacraments — not just symbols, but a way to directly embody what they represent (a team) and communicate it to the followers (fans).

Great nicknames create legacies, make villains and heroes, and spawn acts of devotion from people across the globe. Pittsburgh may be just a city, but the Pittsburgh Steelers are an identity, the operative impulse that represents the incessant working class drive of the team and its fans alike. What’s in a name, you ask? Much more than you think…


Bob Kane, chronicler of the history of Cornell athletics, cites the instigation of the name Big Red in 1905 from a song written by Romeyn Berry, Class of 1904, in which he refers to Cornell as “the big red team.” That’s it? Not quite the glorious connotation you might have expected. About 10 years later, the tradition of using a real bear as a mascot began, and, aside from the current lack of live bears, the names remain the same today.

We are one in a select group of universities to identify a separate nickname and mascot. Notably, since its politically correct switch from the Indians in the 1970s, Stanford identifies itself as the Cardinal (what is with these shades of Red?), but has a tree as its unofficial mascot. For us, and maybe for them, it is like being in nickname limbo, unable to put your finger on exactly what it means to be a Cornellian — indeed, we are suffering a identity crisis.

With this in mind, the question we will continually face is how to do you classify a Big Red. In breaking down the name, neither word is particularly glamorous. “Big” is one of the most indeterminate adjectives in the English language — it can be used to describe anything from Bill Parcells’ midsection to Terrell Owens’ ego. Depending on what it refers to, it can be an insult or a compliment, and in sports terms it doesn’t necessarily conjure up the images of dynamism and vehemence that we desire in a team name.

And then there is “Red” — talk about your mixed signals. It is the color of passion and blood, but also a universal symbol to STOP and a way to describe financial debt. I am not sure about the message we are trying to send here.

The bear, then, is nothing more than an anomaly. The logo of the growling, rabid beast adorns the wall in the Friedman Strength and Conditioning Center, the mascot shows up at sporting events, and the term even manifests itself in the name of campus establishments like Bear Necessities. But still we are not the Bears, which is probably a good thing — that would be incredibly trite. Speaking of trite, however, the Big Red, is not even unique. The website gobigred.com is a fan site supporting the Nebraska Cornhuskers, not my beloved Cornell. Thus, our nickname is both awkward and banal, which makes “Lets Go Red” chants even more confusing when we play teams also sporting this popular color.

I’m probably over-thinking this, but I speak not out of disgust with our nickname, but rather out of confusion. My obsessive love for Cornell and Cornell sports is at the root of my mystification — I just want to take ownership of our athletic moniker. Twenty years from now, when people ask where I went to school, I want to have the luxury of responding like many proud others who can say they are a Longhorn, or a Tar Heel, or a Buckeye. What will I say? I am a Red. Yikes.

Patrick Blakemore is a Sun Staff Writer. Got Game? will appear every other Tuesday this semester.