Removal of Hey Reb! statue could be beginning of end for Rebels nickname

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Steve Marcus

UNLV mascot Hey Reb dances during a game against Pacific at the Thomas & Mack Center Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2018.

Thu, Jun 18, 2020 (2 a.m.)

The removal of a Hey Reb! statue from the UNLV campus wasn’t due to a sudden change in public opinion, but rather the culmination of a long process, according to one of the people behind a petition seeking to change the school’s mascot.

Javon Johnson, UNLV’s director of African American and African Diaspora Studies, helped author a Change.org petition that has garnered more than 4,000 signatures in five days. Titled “It’s Time for a New UNLV Mascot,” the petition was posted online on Saturday and on Tuesday the university took down the statue.

Johnson joined UNLV in 2017 and has been working since then to get university leadership to address the issue.

“The removal of the statue, the questioning of the mascot has been a years-long fight,” Johnson said. “The petition was just one part of a long conversation. There have been tons of people fighting this on all fronts, including myself, who have been questioning the mascot, who have been asking the administration to challenge and change the mascot. I’ve been working on this since 2017, but then there are people who have been working on this for two decades.”

The first iteration of the Rebel mascot was a cartoon wolf named “Beauregard,” after Confederate general P.G.T. Beauregard, who fired the first shots of the Civil War. The wolf was dressed in the grey military uniform of a Confederate soldier.

In 1968, the UNLV football team used a helmet that featured the Confederate flag.

African American students protested the Rebels’ mascot in the 1970s, prompting the school to ditch the wolf in favor of a “colonial” Rebel figure. That eventually morphed into the current “frontiersman” version, named Hey Reb!, in the early 1980s.

In 2015, UNLV commissioned a report on the history of the Rebel nickname to determine whether there were any racist connotations. The report’s author, then-UNLV professor Rainier Spencer, found there was no connection between UNLV’s version of a Rebel and a Confederate rebel.

Johnson doesn’t agree with the report’s conclusion and said that the banishing of “Beauregard” in 1976 proved that the “Rebels” nickname possessed racist overtones.

“Benevolent racism is still racism,” Johnson said. “If you recognize that it needed to change, you recognize, by definition, that there is indeed a problem. To water it down is not to remove the problem, it is to water the problem down. Therefore the problem still exists.”

Former UNLV basketball great Reggie Theus, who helped lead the Runnin’ Rebels to the Final Four in 1977, said the mascot’s Confederate roots could no longer be overlooked given the current climate of the nation.

Theus commended the school for removing the statue.

“It makes me very proud of the university to recognize that this is the way of the country,” Theus said. “To start making changes, you have to admit that certain things represent the wrong things. To the true fan, it may not seem that way on the outside, but the underneath implication of the Rebel is, that’s what he stands for. That’s what he is.”

While black students and activists have protested the mascot’s Confederate roots, Native American students and activist groups have taken issue with the frontiersman version of the Hey Reb! character.

Fawn Douglas, a UNLV grad student and member of the Paiute Tribe, was glad to see the statue come down.

“I think it’s about time,” Douglas said. “When I was a student at UNLV, we were seeing that Native American students weren’t really respected on campus and we felt marginalized. One of the things that was glaring and in your face was the mascot.”

Douglas, whose daughter is now a freshman at UNLV and a member of the Native American Student Association, believes not enough people know about the history behind the frontiersman mythology.

The way Douglas sees it, switching from a Confederate rebel to a frontiersman rebel made little difference.

“You’re trading one racist figure for another racist figure,” she said. “The frontiersman is an Indian killer. A frontiersman is a symbol of manifest destiny. A frontiersman was paid five cents to five dollars to remove indigenous people from the lands, to clear them out of the way in the name of ‘progress.’ We work to educate people on that, and we’re the voices of the few.”

UNLV’s identity as the Rebels has undoubtedly been a major asset for the university's sports programs. The basketball team, known as the Runnin’ Rebels, climbed the summit in 1990, winning a national championship in spectacular fashion. That particular squad became emblazoned in popular culture, inspiring fashion trends, documentaries and a generation of young players.

Despite not achieving comparable success in recent decades, the “Rebels” brand is still strong. In 2013, popular rapper Drake released a song, “Tuscan Leather,” that featured the line: “Sittin’ Gucci Row like they say up at UNLV / Young Rebel, young money, nothin’ you could tell me.”

On Wednesday, fans set up a competing petition on Change.org, making a case for keeping the Hey Reb! mascot and the Rebels nickname.

Danny Tarkanian, a former player and the son of Hall of Fame coach Jerry Tarkanian, questioned why UNLV would mess with a good thing.

“I think it’s stupid,” Tarkanian said. “A lot of places around the country are making a statement now because of what happened in Minneapolis, but because of that you’re going to change the mascot at UNLV?”

Tarkanian, who won election to a seat on the Douglas County Commission on Wednesday (pending a recount), believes the program would struggle if it were to drop the “Rebels” nickname.

“UNLV has done more to shoot itself in the foot, and this would just be another example of it. They have great tradition and recognition with the basketball program. … Change the name ‘Rebels’ and see how many people recognize who they are anymore.”

Name changes have occurred in high-level college sports, often to avoid the racist implications of outdated nicknames. Stanford transitioned from Indians to Cardinal in 1981, Marquette went from Warriors to Golden Eagles in 1994, St. John’s changed from Redmen to Red Storm in 1995 and Belmont went from Rebels to Bruins in 1995.

According to Johnson, the removal of the statue is “just one of many things” UNLV needs to do in order to completely sever any Confederate ties. He believes the Hey Reb! mascot should be abandoned and that UNLV should change its nickname, leaving the entire concept of “Rebels” in the past.

“I am hopeful that UNLV not only changes the mascot, I am hopeful we will make structural changes that really speak to our motto of being ‘Daring, different and diverse,’” Johnson said.

UNLV leadership has largely been silent on the issue, aside from a statement released by acting president Marta Meana on Tuesday, but rebranding the sports programs could be the next logical step.

A spokesperson for Meana did not respond to a request for comment. UNLV athletic director Desiree Reed-Francois did not respond to a text message seeking comment. UNLV declined to make any student-athletes available for comment.

Theus made it clear he favors UNLV starting over with a new nickname, a new mascot, a new everything.

"I think it would be awesome," Theus said. "I look at it as a negative that they can turn into a real positive. I'm proud of a university that is thinking in that direction. I don't know how broad they're thinking, but taking the statue down is a start. It's a start to have the conversation."

Mike Grimala can be reached at 702-948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Mike on Twitter at twitter.com/mikegrimala.

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