Missionaries No More? Perspectives From the Athletic Community

Alden Glass

Discussions about the appropriateness of the Whitman College mascot, the Missionary, have cropped up all over campus in recent months. President Kathleen Murray pledged to address issues concerning the mascot by creating a working group to start a meaningful conversation about the possibility of change. The athletic community here at Whitman has a special connection with the Missionary, since it is the name and symbol each athlete carries with them onto the field of play. Athletics Director Dean Snider, who has been on campus for 20 years, says this is the furthest the debate has gone during his tenure, due in part to the wider national conversation about potentially problematic symbols on college campuses.

“I got an email at the start of this process from someone in the class of 1958 who said when he was a student athlete here, there were people who didn’t like the mascot, who felt it should be changed. In my time here since 1996, it has come up every few years. This is the first time since I’ve been here that we’ve had an honest all-constituent conversation about the mascot,” Snider said.

“I think there’s a larger national conversation going on about issues of cultural sensitivity and generally speaking, power and privilege sensitivities,” Snider continued. “I just think it’s the national context that’s bringing this conversation again in such a way that has, for the first time in my 20 years here, established an actual conversation as a community about the topic.”

This real conversation began within a working group that is actively trying to bring together voices from every constituency on campus in order to create a full picture of campus opinion. The working group circulated a survey circulated through the student body in an effort to get a sense of where the greater population stood on the issue. Snider believes this group and the meaningful conversations are due to President Murray’s impressive leadership.

“As questions emerged and conversations came up in the fall, they rose to the level of President Murray and President Murray decided ok, let’s talk about this,” Snider said. “A president in her first year on the campus talking about what has the potential of being a polarizing kind of issue …. [is] really courageous … and I appreciate the kind of [leader] that takes courageous steps like that, regardless of where this goes.”

In my conversations with student athletes and coaches, I heard a variety of opinions about and perspectives on the change. While I am sharing the arguments and thoughts of specific people in the athletic community, I want to stress that these interviews are nowhere near comprehensive nor representative of the entire athletic community. Members and coaches of athletic teams fall on both ends of the spectrum and everywhere in between.

Senior Nate Flemming played all four years for the men’s soccer team and is the most recent of many of his family members to attend Whitman. Flemming believes it is time for a change.

“The Missionary in general has a lot of bad connotations associated with it, because it was primarily white people coming and taking over in the name of God. Missionaries are doing this because of their religion,” Flemming said. “It wiped out an entire population and we celebrate the fact they did that. They didn’t find this land, they were the second group of people to find this land. The native peoples of the Northwest were already settled.”

Flemming believes that the change won’t have any massive effects. He points to the fact that the Missionary is seldom seen on campus.

“We made jokes about it, but we don’t really use it. During soccer season, it was ‘go Whitman’ not ‘go Missionaries’ because we didn’t like that use of ‘missionary.’ I haven’t really heard the term missionary being used unless we’re at another school. As a community of people, Whitman doesn’t use the term missionary,” Flemming said.

Flemming thinks very little would change if the mascot were to be replaced.

“We [the soccer team] will still use ‘Whitman,’ to be honest. If we are able to find an actual mascot that the community is accepting of, maybe the community will start using that and that will be great.”

On the other side of the debate is senior Hailey Maeda. A player for the women’s basketball team, Maeda does not see the Missionary as having the same negative connotations.

“I’m personally not offended by the mascot, I know people are, but for me, I have friends who are missionaries, Mormon missionaries, and I think they do good [work],” Maeda said. “I can see why people are against it, but I personally have no feelings against it. I’ve grown to like the missionary name, I don’t think it will negatively affect future students, but I think alumni feel a familial bond with the missionary name.”

Maeda also sees the mascot as an issue closer to the sport’s community and an integral piece of school history.

“I think the mascot for any school is geared more towards sports. When you go out you have that mascot name, you don’t hear about the mascot when you go to some academic fair,” Maeda said. “I think a mascot is supposed to represent a piece of history with the school, it’s supposed to tie back with the school and be up front for people to see.”

While advocates for both sides of the issue make compelling cases, the commonality within the athletic community is simply a desire for a role in the discussion. Head Women’s Basketball Coach Michelle Ferenz does not have a strong opinion on the mascot change, but she does want to make sure athletes are not forgotten in the conversation.

“I really don’t have a strong opinion either way.  If it is time to make a change, then I am fine with it. I would rather have more voice in what we adopt as the new mascot then in whether it is time to make a change or not,” Ferenz said. “Since athletics uses the mascot more than any other population on campus, I sincerely hope that if we are going to make a change, athletics will have a strong voice in where we go with it.”

This voice is not necessarily being encouraged to the same degree as Ferenz might hope.

I approached a number of people on either side of the debate who felt uncomfortable sharing their views in an interview with me. No matter where each of us stands on a polarizing issue such as this, we as a campus should aim to foster a climate of openness and respect for all opinions. And regardless of the ultimate outcome, everyone deserves an equal platform for voicing their sentiments. When people are too worried to share their opinions, we all lose vital perspectives and insights, and this hurts the entire campus. This article attempts to provide a forum for a group on campus with a lot at stake in the change, however, the large number of people that felt insecure voicing their opinions narrowed its potential scope. Hopefully, we as a campus can continue this important discussion while also attempting to find ways to broaden, rather than narrow, the conversation.