The athletic teams at Freeburg Community High School in southern Illinois will keep a nickname they have been told is insensitive to people with dwarfism, the Associated Press reports.
The nickname—the Midgets and the Lady Midgets—began at the school sometime around the 1934-35 basketball season, when a reporter who had seen the team, whose players were, shall we say, of short stature, beat opponents who were much taller. But the Little People of America delivered a petition, complete with 4,400 signatures, on July 8 to Superintendent Andrew Lehman, asking the school to change the name because the group and the signers of the petition found it offensive.
“The term midget dehumanizes and objectifies people of short stature,” the organization says in its petition. “The word was first coined in reference to people of short stature who were on public display for curiosity and sport, and the word evolved into a negative connotation. The preferred terminology is dwarf, little person, or person of short stature.”
Several hundred people showed up at the school yesterday to urge the school board not to dump the name, though, reminding the board that the name was not intended to be offensive when it was coined and is still a source of pride and tradition in this small agrarian community near St Louis. We reported in June that the Freeburg girls’ volleyball team is one of the state’s “dynasty” teams, having won state titles in the sport four times between 1979-80 and 2009-10, the latter being their second consecutive state title in girls’ volleyball.
Indeed, the dwarfism group recognizes the intent wasn’t to bully anybody. “While the term is not intended to do harm, any word that creates a hostile and unwelcoming environment with any potential student has no place as a school mascot,” the group wrote. “We want to ensure that Freeburg is creating a safe environment for all people, including those of short stature, that are in the area.”
In addition, the AP quoted one parent of a student who has dwarfism as saying, “I hear a lot of people talk about (the cost of changing the nickname). Schools have been made as a public organization. They’re supposed to protect our children. They’re not supposed to offend anybody. They’re supposed to be bully-free.”
Despite Mr Lehman’s belief that the school won’t be changing the name of the mascot—a group seeking to preserve the name has a Facebook page with about 4,700 likes—the Little People of America hope their activity in Freeburg will lead schools in Iowa, Missouri, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wisconsin to change the names of their mascots.
“People’s perspective on what is a good mascot or a bad mascot, that’s a subjective issue,” the AP quoted Mr Lehman as saying. “The name stuck. The town liked it. It ought to be the decision of the people who run the school.”
In June, Voxitatis reported that the school board in Madison, Wis., had banned as part of its new dress code all T-shirts bearing Native American mascots, like the Washington Redskins or Chicago Blackhawks. Changing the student dress code, though, is different from changing the official name a school uses for its mascot.
Problems occur when organizations impose mandates on schools without providing any funding for them to carry out those mandates. If Freeburg decides to change the mascot, it will have to reprint letterhead and other documents, which will involve a redesign and additional printer setup costs, and so on. No money has been provided for the district to do this from the state, federal, or local government, so that money would have to be raised from somewhere.
Instead, the group has presented the district with an ultimatum, acting a little like bullies themselves: You’re offensive and schools are supposed to be welcoming environments for all students, so change your name now, they demand, almost threatening a lawsuit.
This is nothing more than swatting at windmills, though. Look, there’s real bigotry to fight out there, folks, such as putting the Confederate flag into a museum, assigning it to its proper place in our history. The word “midget” may have evolved from its meaning in 1935, and schools need to consider that. But schools, which have to serve a diverse community of students, don’t deal well with ultimatums, and it’s physically impossible for them to deal with unfunded mandates from community groups.
I have therefore taken the liberty of writing a short paragraph, a compromise that could be included in the school’s published literature, somewhere that all students can read, more than a few sentences spoken at an all-school assembly, to avoid costly litigation:
The district and school administration recognizes the fact that the use of the term “midget” on our school logo has been found offensive. We deeply regret the history of the term used to describe our mascot and its evolving connotation, but our clear intent is to use the term as an honorable reference to the excellence of our 1934-35 basketball team. Although we cannot control the evolution of words in the English language or the connotations they carry for certain people, we neither endorse nor support any use of our mascot in a way that is offensive to people of short stature.
And then, start saving money to change the mascot, because if this gets to a federal court, the current mascot could lose, and the cost of litigation would be unacceptable. As we learned in a recent trademark lawsuit prosecuted by the Washington Redskins over a name that isn’t plainly offensive even to Native Americans, the connotations of words used or endorsed by the government matter.