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'This is not a fight': South Eugene High weighs changes to 'Axemen' team name

South Eugene Axemen football players walk onto the field for the coin toss against the Sheldon Irish in 2017. The South community will have a conversation in January about changing the team name from "Axemen" to something more inclusive. (Detail from file photo by Abigail Winn, Oregon News Lab)

EUGENE, Ore. - Should South Eugene High School change its team name?

A petition posted on MoveOn.org calls for "Students, Faculty, and administration of South Eugene High School work together to name and introduce a modern mascot which is reflective of the current 4j mission, goals, and nondiscrimination policy."

More than 200 people had signed the petition as of Thursday morning.

"South Eugene High School adopted the AXEMEN mascot in 1953, a time when ONLY men were allowed to compete. They selected the Axemen as a symbol of male dominance to intimidate opposing teams. Competition for women was considered unflattering and potential dangerous– it was not allowed in the 4j District. Therefore, in the cultural context of that time, it made sense to name a team mascot after an exclusively male symbol," the petition reads. "In 1972 the US Department of Education passed the Title IX amendment to ensure equity for women and girls, and prevent them from being subjected to discrimination under any education program. Women were finally able to compete, but complying to the letter of Title IX has been slow. District 4j is still struggling to create equity, even now."

The petitioner details why "Axewomen" doesn't work as an alternative.

"Some have suggested adding AXEWOMEN as a second, but equal brand to attempt team equity (this is not currently allowed by school rules). This solution fails when the teams are co-ed, as in the case of Ultimate Frisbee, Chess, and debate," according to the petition. "It also also does not address which brand name would be listed first in promotional materials and signage, nor does it work for non-binary students, and it creates the burden of additional expense to carrying two separate brands."

The school principal, Dr. Andy Dey, sent an email to families Tuesday on the topic, saying the school would begin a conversation on the topic.

"While no decisions have been made regarding any final outcome, we find the request for a change to be compelling and one that shall receive full attention from the school's leadership," Dey writes. "The superintendent has expressed support for moving forward in conversation with the faculty, student groups and the school's Site Council. I have also been asked to develop a fiscal impact statement as part of the process for re-naming school programs as outlined in board policy. I wanted to let you all know that after the school year resumes following the break we will be engaging in a process to determine how to best move forward with regard to our school's team name. I expect to be making a recommendation to the superintendent on this subject by the end of January."

Read the full petition here | Read Principal Dey's full letter below

Hello Friends and Families of South,
I wanted to take a few moments to wish everyone the absolute best over the winter break. Whether you are traveling or staying here to make the most of what winter has to offer in the Pacific Northwest, I hope everyone finds some time for adventure as well as some time to relax and reflect on what is most important. Most of all I hope everyone stays warm and safe until we see you again on January 3rd. I would also like to share some information regarding a matter of importance for members of the South community. Thanks for taking the time to read.
As some of you may already be aware, a conversation about South's team name, The Axemen, has been percolating through the school community recently. One outcome of the conversation is a petition presented to the school, signed by hundreds of students, parents, teachers, coaches and members of the community, asking for a change. Specifically, petitioners are asking for a team name that is non-gender specific and that better represents the entire student body. Some signers of the petition expressed undeniably strong feelings in support of a change. Others, when hearing of the petition, have expressed undeniably strong feelings to the contrary while still others have expressed somewhat neutral feelings on the subject. Regardless of one's thoughts on the matter I believe a conversation such as this is a sign of our school's strength, is in keeping with South's ethos and makes me feel very optimistic about the future of the school. I would like to share a bit of our school's history as well as our thinking on the matter so, again, thanks for taking the time to read.
What we now know as South Eugene High School had its inaugural year in 1897 and was known then simply as Eugene High School. It was the first such school in the region and the fourth such school in the State of Oregon. It was re-named South Eugene High School in 1957 when the city's second high school, North Eugene High School, opened. Over that same span of time, student-athletes of this school were referred to using a variety of names including The Eugeneans, the Eugene High Basketeers, The Mermen, and The Purple and White. In the fall of 1916, the E Club was formed consisting of students who had earned a letter in one of the school's sports. Beginning in 1926, members of the E Club proudly held a large axe for their annual yearbook picture. Eventually, members of the E Club were referred to as the men of the axe and then more simply as The Axemen. By the early 1930's, The Axemen was the school's adopted team name. Despite the existence of girl's intramural basketball teams as early as the 1912 school year and the emergence of a volleyball team fairly soon thereafter, interscholastic sports as well as the ability to earn a letter was the exclusive domain of male students for quite some time.
Much has changed in our society since the early years of this institution. After the passage of Title IX in the 1970’s, there was a clear mandate for parity in men's and women's athletic opportunities and the number of female student athletes at the school increased dramatically. Language patterns have changed in our country as well. Use of non-gendered terminology (chairperson, firefighter, police officer etc...) is now standard, while the use of male-specific pronouns to refer generically to all people is no longer a universally accepted social norm. Over the years South has evolved in many ways to reflect significant changes in our community and society but what has not changed is our team name, The Axemen.
It is in this context that a number of students, parents, and others have called for a change. They say that while it is an honor to represent this school, the team name is not adequately inclusive and as such requires an update. One thought is that a change from The Axemen to The Axe would keep South connected to its history while providing the school and students with a strong and inclusive team name moving forward into its future. While no decisions have been made regarding any final outcome, we find the request for a change to be compelling and one that shall receive full attention from the school's leadership. The superintendent has expressed support for moving forward in conversation with the faculty, student groups and the school's Site Council. I have also been asked to develop a fiscal impact statement as part of the process for re-naming school programs as outlined in board policy. I wanted to let you all know that after the school year resumes following the break we will be engaging in a process to determine how to best move forward with regard to our school's team name. I expect to be making a recommendation to the superintendent on this subject by the end of January.
I have heard early conversations described by some as "a fight about changing the mascot." I hope to be clear when stating, unequivocally, that this is not a fight. By promoting the notion that this is a fight, rather than a conversation, we run the risk of encouraging tactics and behaviors that are not in keeping with the importance we place on integrity, civility and respect at this school. There is enough evidence in current social and political discourse to suggest fighting about this will not be in the best interests of the students for whom this school exists. I anticipate that many will weigh in on this conversation with very strong feelings and from multiple points of view. That is something I know to expect at South. Please know I respect this community for doing so and look forward to working with you to define a respectful, inclusive process that holds the most promise for this school at this important phase of its history.
I welcome your comments and questions about this were you so inclined to share them. Take care of yourselves and enjoy the remainder of the winter break.
Warm Regards,
Andy Dey, Ed. D.
Principal
South Eugene High School

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