Sonoma State U. discards controversial Cossack mascot

Richard Zimmer, a professor at Sonoma State University for the past 31 years, summed up his feelings in one word: "relief."

The Cossack, the SSU mascot that has irked Zimmer and other Jewish faculty, students and members of the Sonoma community since its adoption in 1962, has finally been unhorsed. The university announced Tuesday that the offensive nickname has been dropped in favor of "Seawolves."

The changing of the mascots is set to officially take place Aug. 28, the first day of the upcoming fall semester.

"I'm glad this is over. We can move on, we don't have to keep fighting this battle," said Zimmer, a professor of anthropology and psychology and the former regional director of the Jewish Community Relations Council.

"For both Jewish faculty and the JCRC, this has been a sore point in an otherwise very good relationship with the university. We do have a Holocaust lecture series on campus and that keeps the university in very close contact with the Jewish community, so this posed a peculiar anomaly. Here we have the Holocaust lecture series and a symbol that's not just anti-Jewish but anti-women and violent to other ethnic groups as well."

In reality, Cossacks are an extant Eurasian tribe well known for horsemanship, colorful dancing and, most notably, fanatical intolerance of non-Christians. Cossack-led pogroms through the ages left hundreds of thousands of Jews and others dead.

Yet it was not pogroms but the Cossack's legendary prowess in battle as loyal servants of the Russian czars that appealed to SSU athletes and athletic department staff, who were among the strongest supporters of retaining the Cossack mascot.

Mitch Cox, the school's assistant athletic director, said that while he prefers Cossacks, Seawolves is the best alternative.

"I did not feel we had to change, but if we did, this is the one name I could live with," said Cox.

The Cossack's days became numbered in November of 2000, after Sonoma State's academic senate voted 24-3 in favor of renaming the mascot, this time without any reference to a human group. The student senate subsequently passed a nearly identical resolution.

School president Ruben Arminana formed a "naming committee" comprised of students, athletic department members, faculty and others. After many months of surveying thousands of students, staff, faculty and alumni, the group presented Arminana with two possible alternatives — Condors and Seawolves, a nod to Sonoma's own Jack London.

Arminana chose the latter, to Cox's great relief.

"Condors was unacceptable. Basically, it's a bird that isn't part of this area that eats dead animals. It's a scavenger. That's not exactly the image we want to convey," said Cox. "Seawolves at least has some excitement attached to it, some graphic potential, some aggression and competitive spirit, and it's got a nice sound to it."

The university estimates that the cost of replacing athletic uniforms, SSU clothing, stationery, campus signs and designing a new logo could run as high as $130,000.

While in the past 40 years the Cossack has staved off a number of challenges, campus historian Dan Markwyn says that, quite simply, times have changed.

"It is trite to say that times change, all is in flux, etc., but that is part of it," said Markwyn, a longtime SSU history professor who retired last year and is now penning a history of the university. "There is a certain fatigue factor. I don't have any evidence of this at the moment, but it becomes clear that over a decade or two, if there's a continuous objection to a logo or something else, more often than not the change will come."

Also, adds Markwyn, while the arguments against dumping the Cossack remained largely static, the contention for making a change became louder and more multifaceted.

"This rather lame argument about political correctness can only last so long. It's a term that really doesn't bear close scrutiny; it's usually something people express to display their resistance to something. But it doesn't really mean anything in the particulars of any argument," he said.

The only arguments left in pro-Cossacks' arsenal, "how change would be politically correct and somehow disloyal to the university, those arguments weren't very weighty anymore. Once the decision was made that the money was available to buy new uniforms and so forth, what's the point? Nothing new was introduced into the arguments for the Cossack, and the arguments against it got better and better."

And unlike Cossacks, Markwyn adds, Seawolves actually has a Sonoma connection — "plus, it's alliterate!" he said with a laugh.

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.