Cossack criticism now crackling across Sonoma States campus

After nearly 40 years of ruling the roost on the campus of Sonoma State University, the Cossack may finally be on the run.

Following the SSU Academic Senate's overwhelming vote in favor of a resolution calling for "a university mascot name from other than a human group" on Nov. 2, the Cossack mascot has, for the first time, faced widespread criticism.

The Student Senate subsequently passed a similar resolution at the behest of campus Jewish and women's groups, many of whom felt that the image of an angry man on horseback did not adequately represent a university featuring a 2-to-1 ratio of female to male undergraduates.

Long relegated to the campus' fringes, discussion of the Cossack's viability as a mascot became a hot topic following the Academic Senate's 24-3 vote opposing the mascot.

Even the Santa Rosa Press Democrat leapt into the fray, running a mid-November editorial titled "Go 'Cossacks,' It's Time to Dump Mascot Symbolizing Oppression, Destruction."

"A lot of people talked about it; people talked to me and said they were glad I'd put this forward. It was too long coming and they were happy to see it," said SSU sociology Professor Peter Phillips, who penned the "Naming Policy" resolution. "And then when the local Press Democrat came out with an op-ed saying it's time to change, that seemed to be the difference. That's substantial from an administrative perspective; the administration is very sensitive to how it's publicly perceived."

In the face of the recent criticism, SSU President Ruben Arminana has formed an ad hoc committee to brainstorm mascot alternatives and make a suggestion by April.

"We've called members of the faculty, alumni, the administration, the athletic department and students," said Seann Pridmore, SSU Student Senate's vice president of student affairs, who will head the 10-person committee. "Hopefully, we can derive one or two or three names that will be suitable and present those to Dr. Arminana."

In the end, however, the decision on what SSU's new mascot will be — or whether to change at all — rests with Arminana and Arminana alone. And the president has made it very clear that the buck stops with him on this issue.

"At the end of the day, there's no vote; I'm the only person who represents all the different constituencies in the university," said Arminana. "The logo is not owned by a single constituency, there has to be some level of consensus as to what it should be. Hopefully, over the next few months something will emerge, but it hasn't emerged yet.

"I wasn't here when the Cossack was named, so I don't have a passion for or against the Cossack," Arminana added. "Since I'm the person who has to make the decision, I think I ought to be fairly neutral until something emerges."

Arminana estimated that the process would require at least one year, and could cost the university a minimum of $100,000 for replacement of all Cossack team uniforms, paraphernalia and the design of a new logo.

That the university is taking serious steps to possibly ax the Cossack is a surprise and joy to many local Jewish leaders, some of whom have been working toward that end for quite a while.

Michael Robinson, rabbi emeritus at Congregation Shomrei Torah in Santa Rosa, offered a brief history of the Cossacks' persecution of Jews at a 1999 SSU panel attended largely by student athletes and members of the athletic department. During the Russian Revolution, for example, Cossacks carried out pogroms in Ukraine in which an estimated 100,000 Jews lost their lives. They also have a long history of anti-Semitism and violence toward non-Christians.

Robinson's arguments were vociferously rejected.

"[The students] felt like they were under personal attack, like something was wrong with them because they were or had been Cossacks," Robinson recalled. "The students' position was 'we're not interested in history, we're Cossacks and we're fine.' There was a total divorce from history."

When told of present developments, Robinson replied, "I'm really amazed."

The hostility encountered by Robinson was not atypical — the Cossack's strongest supporters are student athletes and members of the athletic department, who see the mascot as a symbol of strength and resolve. Members of the athletic department said they are not unwilling to compromise, however.

"I think the athletic department made it clear early on that if a suitable alternative could be found, we're not here to make people upset or turn people off," said Mitch Cox, SSU assistant athletic director. "But we also don't want to be pushed into accepting a name we don't find suitable."

And there's the rub, because many on campus find the current crop of alternative nicknames to be too bland, too unoriginal or too wimpy.

Various groups and individuals have proposed, among others, the Rain Devils, Killer Bees, Trailblazers, Blue Wave, Blue Storm and, in a nod to Santa Rosa legend and "Peanuts" creator Charles Schulz, the Beagles.

"That's exactly what the student athletes fear the most," said SSU's athletic director, Bill Fusco, on the possibility of naming the school's teams after a cartoon character who enjoyed fantasizing that his doghouse was a World War I-era Sopwith Camel airplane. "If you go out with 'Beagles' across your chest in front of 8,000 fans at U.C. Davis, you'll get a lot of ridicule."

After several months of brainstorming, the committee hopes it will be able to propose a school nickname that is both tough and culturally sensitive.

"If they're really going to handle this, then that's great," said Robinson. "Red Sox, White Sox, Dodgers, Giants — these are all innocent names. Or there are lots of animal names or just colors. There are all kinds of things you can have."

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.