Reassessing traditions in Texas high school football isn't a bad thing

Photo by Russell Wilburn

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Sports are at a seminal crossroads moment.

Often times, people like to use sports as an escape from current events and a way to bypass often difficult discussions society presents when in reality, there are few things that coalesce society and culture more than how we express ourselves through sports.

Is your favorite team from your hometown or state? Did you fall in love with a certain player because their upbringing reminded you of your own? Or did you bond over your favorite team with a family member? Almost everything about sports is interwoven throughout our identity. So, it’s fair to say to see why sports entities around the country are taking the time to self-examine themselves for the better.

Sparked by the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the resulting protests across the world, the increased discussion of racial sensitivity in the United States has everyone taking an introspective look at their own prejudices and biases and how (or if) there are ways to fix them.

Texas high school football has been no exception.

Wednesday morning, West Orange-Cove CISD announced that it would no long refer to the West Orange-Stark High School defense as the “Chain Gang." Instead going forward, the district wants to refer to them by a new nickname, the “Blue Link."

This was, “due to the negative historical root of the phrase,” the district said in a statement. In addition to this, the Board of Trustees will also offer an African American Studies course at West Orange-Stark beginning this fall.

“Without a proper understanding of the past, it is difficult to understand the present and the future,” the statement read.

From the post-Civil War Reconstruction era through the early 20th century, chain gangs were southern prison laborers, mostly Black, who were literally bound together and assigned to work on construction or farming projects. This practice often led to prisoners getting ulcers and infections from the chain link around their ankles, not to mention the severe injuries sustained by being chained with an entire row of fellow inmates where slight missteps or accidents were devastatingly consequential.

According to KOGT, the Mustangs have been using the nickname for over three decades and it’s a popular one among the Texas high school football community. And yet, the district sought to change it. Something as seemingly as innocent as a nickname that, without historical context, may even sound cool or appealing to a 17-year-old varsity football player was still worth examining and changing in the minds of WOCCISD. This action represents the deep level of self-analysis that should be going on across the state today.

The nickname was meant to be a representation of brotherhood and tough will, but it also associated their Black players with stereotype and a dark period in post-slavery America. West Orange Cove-CISD has a 57.6 percent Black student population and West Orange-Stark has a 63.7 percent Black student population according to the Texas Tribune. WOCCISD noticed the disserve and inappropriateness of referring to its players using a phrase that describe Black prison labor. Will fans and students embrace the new Blue Link nickname? That's for time to decide, new traditions take time to implement and not everyone will nail it overnight. 

Similarly, on June 19, Birdville ISD voted to change the Richland High School mascot from the Rebels after an online petition calling for the abolishment of confederate branding received over 26,000 signatures. In 2019, Austin ISD renamed three high schools who were named after confederate figures. And in 2015, Buda Hays High School announced it would stop playing “Dixie” at school-sanctioned events. There are countless other districts who have also decided to disassociate themselves from racist or insensitive imagery and traditions.

Tradition is invaluable in Texas high school football and a large part of what makes it special to all of us. But traditions also have history to them, some good and some bad, whether people in 2020 are adherent to that or not, that’s where the self-examination comes into play and where no well-intended act is too small.

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