By Jacob Irons ’25
Nestled in the corner of northeastern Connecticut lies Killingly High School. A school that has come under scrutiny in recent years regarding its choice of mascots: The Redmen and the Redgals. In 2019, the town’s Board of Education voted to remove the mascots from both their building and their identity and begin searching for new mascots (1). Yet many within the local community saw the upheaval of the mascots, which have been in place since 1939, as a call to action to ensure the mascots’ perseverance (2). In November 2019, the citizens of the small town of 17,000 took the issue to the polls as they elected Board of Education candidates who had explicitly run on the single-platform issue of reinstating the Redmen moniker (1). On January 8, 2020, the newly elected board members voted 5-4 in favor of reinstating Redmen as the school’s nickname (1).
“Cheering for a Team with a Racist Mascot,” chapter two from Luther and Davidson’s book Loving Sports When They Don’t Love You Back, details the fluid situations that have begun to arise around the country as professional, college and high school teams elect to either drop or retain Native American mascots. The authors argue that teams that retain them are not honoring Native Americans by possessing a Native American-affiliated mascot or nickname but rather are diminishing them to be associated with inanimate objects (3). They conclude society and lawmakers can use multiple methods to force teams into changing their mascots, such as cutting into a team’s funding, emphasizing the morality of the issue, and listening to the stakeholders. Considering Luther and Davidson’s methods that society and lawmakers can use to force teams or schools to change their name, this paper investigates how Killingly High School has defied these pressures or submitted to them.
When the board members voted to eliminate Redmen in 2019, they were compelled to take action due to the morality of the issue. After hearing from leaders of the Nipmuc nation, an indigenous tribe in northeastern Connecticut, the board eliminated the mascot. Yet, when the debate resurfaced once the new board members took office in 2020, they began to look the other way. The current members disregarded the same Nipmuc nation leaders who presented in 2019 by stating that they were only a minority of the Native American population and noted that a large majority believed it was not racist (2). Consequently, even after hearing continuously from the Nipmuc nation that Redmen was racist and did not belong, they still reinstated the mascot. Aaron Randle, a reporter from The New York Times who first covered the story, reached out to Tara Houska of Not Your Mascots, a group fighting against the stereotypical representation of Native Americans in sports. She believes this is the first time a school has acknowledged its mascot was racist and has continued the process to reinstate it (2). By electing to reinstate the mascot, the board failed to act on the moral argument of current community members, a sentiment Luther and Davidson argued could persuade teams and schools to force a change in their mascots.
While in 2019, the US started to turn a page on normalizing Native American mascots in society with continuing pressure on professional sports teams to change their names, the most significant reason the discussion was brought to the board was that students and families were also embarrassed to attach their schools to an outwardly racist mascot (2). Many students had called the mascot an image issue (1). Citing that it deflected students from attending the school and lowered pride within the community. The students elected to effect change by bringing their grievances to the Board of Education and ultimately persuaded the board to eliminate the mascot. When the discussion reopened in 2020, the students flooded the meetings. One student said, “This is not what I want our school to be known for. And all because people don’t want to let go of tradition. This has made Killingly a laughingstock” (2). Another student said, “It’s embarrassing to be connected to a school that, even though they did the right thing before, went back to the wrong thing” (4). As they had with the Nipmuc Nation leaders, the board disregarded the students’ comments saying they were the minority of the community. However, most students supported the idea when the school announced they would be eliminating the Redmen as their nickname. By reinstating the mascot, the board neglected to listen to their stakeholder’s opinions on the issues, which was another method Luther and Davidson concluded could be convincing towards achieving mascot change.
Killingly has been unfazed by the social pressures thrust onto its board to change its mascots. Nevertheless, the new laws have also done very little to burden the board and force the elimination of the mascot. In 2021, the Connecticut state legislature passed a law limiting the funding awarded to municipalities with a Board of Education that useds a Native American tribe or a Native American individual as a mascot, nickname, or logo. The Redmen qualifies Killingly high school to face this penalty (1). Under this penalty, the town would lose 94 thousand dollars annually in funding unless there is a change to the mascot. John Penney, a reporter with The Bulletin, detailed how Killingly typically uses that money to offset mill-rate jumps (1). The town will see the first reduction in funding this fiscal year in response to its mascot. Ultimately, the town has been undeterred by the loss of funding. Luther and Davidson argued that once a team or school’s funding came under fire, they would be forced to create change; however, Killingly has held firm.
Luther and Davidson argue that teams will relent to three standard modes of pressure generated by society and lawmakers when discussing the elimination of a Native American mascot. Nevertheless, Killingly has defied these pressures. The board neglected to take action after the Nipmuc community stated that the mascot was racist. The board withstood pressure from their stakeholders, students, and parents, who called for a change. Additionally, the loss of state financial assistance did not even force them to adjust their position. Killingly’s defiance of these pressures raises a larger question, what will it take for Killingly to submit to the pressures and change their mascot? As of today, Killingly still defies and clings to the name Redmen and Redgals.
Jacob Irons is a Film, Television and Theatre major with a minor in Sports, Media, and Culture. His article was originally written for Professor Annie Coleman’s American Studies course ‘Sports and American Culture.’
- Penney, John. “Killingly’s school board brought back a controversial mascot. Now it might hire a PR firm.” The Bulletin, February 28, 2022.
- Randle, Aaron. “Officials Called ‘Redmen’ a Racist Mascot. Then Voters Weighed In.” The New York Times, January 11, 2022.
- Luther, Jessica, and Davidson, Kavitha A.“Cheering for a Team with a Racist Mascot.” Loving Sports When They Don’t Love You Back: Dilemmas Of The Modern Fan, (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2020).
- Graziano, Frankie. “Connecticut School Board Reinstates Mascot Native Americans Called Demeaning.” NPR, February 10, 2020.