During my recent visit to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, our tour guide casually shared a small, though perhaps not so insignificant detail: the school has been without a mascot since 2007 when the controversial native Indian Chief Illiniwek was retired in response to NCAA sanctions. While I’m sure this is not news to the Big Ten fans among you (I am shamelessly showing my ignorance about big time college sports), this revelation started me thinking. Do spectators need a mascot to foster loyalty and pride in their teams and school? How does the absence of a mascot impact school spirit, sales of logo emblazoned clothing, and even the prospects for a winning season? The mascot-less Illinois football team is currently in 8th place in its conference, but it would be quite the stretch to point the guilty finger at the erstwhile Indian chief mascot who has been gone nearly 4 years.
What makes the University of Illinois’ situation so unusual is that nearly every college and university in the United States has a mascot, regardless of the size, athletic division, or visible school spirit. Yet Chief Illiniwek’s disappearance from the Urbana campus doesn’t appear to have had any dampening influence on university pride. That’s not to say that students aren’t lobbying for a new mascot. I was struck by the swarms of orange clad students all over campus, proudly displaying their loyalty by donning school colors.
Whether or not a college is noted for its school spirit, the mascot is a symbol that engenders allegiance and instills a sense of being part of a community. Mascots reveal a fun and lighthearted side of any college, including those better known for their academic rigor than their football teams. Whenever I visit my daughter at her small New England college, a school that would probably rank low on anyone’s list of “rah rah” campuses, I can't help but notice the ubiquitous display of logos and official school attire. This sight tells me that students feel connected to the community and share a bond with others who, like them, wear their colors proudly. Even in the case of Illinois, a university still in search of a mascot, its well entrenched traditions and pride have clearly outlived the demise of a symbol.
So here’s my point. Most colleges, with or without a mascot, successfully foster a sense of community among their students. School spirit is a term that has become synonymous with “rah rah," but in fact, it exists wherever students find common ground and come together as a community. The next time you visit a college campus, notice how many students are wearing their school colors and logo, and find out about traditions and activities unique to that college campus. And don’t forget to inquire about the school mascot.