Should UNLV continue to be the Rebels? Why change could be forthcoming

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Steve Marcus

UNLV mascot Hey Reb poses during the Runnin’ Rebels Scarlet & Gray Showcase at Sam Boyd Stadium Saturday, Oct. 5, 2019.

Mon, Jun 22, 2020 (2 a.m.)

A controversy is raging around UNLV's removal of a Hey Reb! statue from a prominent spot on campus last week.

University officials removed the statue because the mascot — and the “Rebels” nickname itself — is tied to a racist past. Many students, former players and community members say the nickname should be changed permanently. UNLV Sharks in honor of basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian (Tark the Shark) is one suggestion.

But others say the statue’s removal was an unnecessary attack on the school’s identity.

Should UNLV continue to be the Rebels? In an effort to present both sides of the decision, let’s take a look at the arguments for and against changing the name.

Arguments to change the “Rebels” name

The Confederate ties are real

UNLV absolutely embraced Confederate iconography during the 1960s and 1970s. It may have been in jest — a winking nod to the school’s north/south ideological battle with UNR — but a wolf named “Beauregard” in a Confederate uniform is what it is. The school has tried to distance itself from those Confederate-flag-on-the-football-helmet days, even changing the mascot from Beauregard to the current “Hey Reb!” frontiersman, but that Confederate history will always be attached to the Rebels name. It’s a bad look for a university that prides itself on diversity.

Players don’t like it

The current mascot and the Rebels nickname make some players uncomfortable. UNLV declined a request to speak to current players about the subject, but former players have been weighing in, and the consensus seems to be that a name change has to be considered. Runnin’ Rebels legends Reggie Theus and “Sudden” Sam Smith are in favor of changing the name. Former football standout Mike Hughes wants it changed, while former quarterback Caleb Herring suggested not using any nicknames/mascots at all.

Native Americans don’t like it

Even if the current “Rebels” nickname officially stands for a frontiersman rebel and not a Confederate rebel, that is still problematic to Native Americans. Fawn Douglas, a grad student at UNLV and a member of the Paiute Tribe, said the school is simply “trading one racist figure for another racist figure.” According to Douglas, who is a member of the Native American Student Association, “the frontiersman is an Indian killer.” That makes two ethnic minority groups who have issues with the Rebels name.

There is an obvious alternative

A name change doesn’t have to be painful, especially when UNLV has a ready-made alternative that the vast majority of fans would line up behind: The Sharks. That nickname would serve as a nod to Tarkanian, the ultimate rebel/Rebel, and honor the history of UNLV’s most successful athletic program. Not even UNLV — the school that brought you the Blob, its failed rebranding three years ago — could botch such an easy win.

It’s 2020

Times have changed, to the point that a report on racial issues written in 2015 is almost obsolete now. In the past five years the country has seen Colin Kaepernick take a knee, George Floyd’s slaying, the Black Lives Matter movement and widespread protests in favor of racial equality. To put it bluntly, a smattering of Confederate/slavery iconography may have been possible to excuse in 2015, but things have changed so much in five years that a lot of people just won’t stand for it now.

Javon Johnson, UNLV’s director of African American and African Diaspora Studies, was frank when addressing the 2015 report.

“I don’t agree with the report. I think it’s disingenuous at best. There were literal Confederate flags on the [student] newspaper, and the helmet of the football team had a Confederate flag on it. ‘Beauregard’ is the original mascot. I think that report didn’t want to see the racism. It chose not to.”

A change might be inevitable

UNLV can choose to keep defending the Rebels name on a technicality — that the Confederate logos were a long time ago and partly in jest — or the leadership can make a change.

The trend is obvious in the sports world. NASCAR has banned the Confederate battle flag from all its events. The NCAA is withholding championship events from Mississippi in an attempt to pressure the state to change its flag, and the SEC is threatening to do the same.

The public sentiment has swung so far against any Confederate iconography that UNLV might take on a significant business risk by supporting the “Rebels” name. Any team nickname with confederate ties, past or present — a category that includes the UNLV Rebels — could be playing a dangerous game in regards to sponsors and corporate money going forward.

Arguments to keep the “Rebels” name

It is the school’s identity

UNLV has been the Rebels since the very beginning, for better or worse. They were Rebels when the Hardway Eight made it to the school’s first Final Four in 1977, they were Rebels when they won the national championship in 1990, and they were Rebels when they knocked off undefeated San Diego State last season. Jerry Tarkanian’s Hall of Fame bio cites his time coaching the Runnin’ Rebels, who were “college basketball’s fast-paced, rebellious gunners.” There’s a lot behind the Rebels name.

Some fans love it

Being a “rebel” is a romantic ideal. In the abstract, everyone wants to be a rebel in some way. UNLV fans, who feel they have been persecuted by the NCAA for decades, especially embrace that identity. It’s understandable that many longtime fans are loath to give that up in favor of a brand-new nickname that might not have any connection to the teams of the past or the spirit of UNLV.

It’s an established brand

There is a business cost to changing the name, and with the COVID-19 shutdown sure to wreak havoc on UNLV’s financial situation, can the school afford to completely revamp its brand? Think about this: It cost the school $50,000 a few years ago just to commission the atrocious “Blob” logo, which was quickly abandoned. Imagine shelling out exponentially more money today for a completely new logo/mascot/identity/brand, only to find it’s as bad as the Blob — or worse.

The report exonerates

In 2015, then-UNLV professor Rainier Spencer researched the issue of the Rebel nickname’s Confederate past, and his conclusion was that it didn’t warrant changing the name. The report is comprehensive and straightforward, and it was authored by a Black man who served as UNLV’s chief diversity officer at the time. Fans who want to defend the name at all costs can point to this report as the final word on the topic.

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

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