Thursday, April 9, 2015

Army Football Preview: A Brief History of USMA's Brand

Army is rebranding next week, and judging from my Facebook feed, the decision to change the name back to "Cadets" from "Black Knights" has gotten a lot of people confused.  Folks were wondering if this was a racial thing (it isn't), or if it somehow has something to do with better gender neutrality (probably not), but very few folks seemed conversant with the actual facts of Army's football and general sports' heritage.  With any luck, this post will change that.

For a hundred years, the cadets were represented by mules.
Mules are hardworking, and they were symbolic of the Army at a
time when soldiers used them to pull caissons for the Artillery.
The truth is that Army sports has only recently embraced the idea of being "Black Knights".  For one hundred years, from 1899 to 1999, Army sports' official mascot was the mule.  In fact, when I was a cadet, there were four actual mules living on post, along with a small troop of cadets who cared for them and rode them around during football games.  The football team--just the football team--was colloquially called "the Black Knights", having been given that nickname at some point in the 1930s by sports beat writers working in New York, and you would sometimes see Black Knights running around as spirit mascots during games, but I don't know anyone on any of the other teams who considered themselves to be Black Knights.  I know that I did not when I was swimming for Army.  Officially, we were cadets, and that was fine.

So why change the name?

The Black Knights of Army.
Things were different back in the glory days.  In the 1930s and '40s, Army was a football powerhouse at a time when college football was just entering its national heydey.  This only started to change in the 1960s, when big money infiltrated collegiate athletics, turning it into something of a business rather than a place where gentlemen competed on the fields of friendly strife in contests that sought to build character.  As might be expected, Army excelled in competitions against gentlemen sports teams but has fared less well againt sports-as-big-business.

In fact, academy teams still do very well in sports that are not much governed by money.  For example, Army fields excellent Rugby, Lacrosse, Sprint Football, and Wrestling teams, but in sports where major college money and potential professional post-collegiate careers are important, Army and the other academies can't really compete.  That's not so much a problem as it is a simple fact of life.  Speaking personally, I prefer to watch legitimate student-athletes compete for pride.  When Army plays Stanford, for example, I'd like to see only the kids--on both sides--who have to take Physics as a required course compete on the field.  That would be a more legitimate kind of competition in my mind given Stanford's otherwise dominant recruiting position.

Vince Lombardi's "West Point" coaching sweater.
Since Lombardi's time, West Point has made a concerted effort
to better represent the Army as a whole.
It seems hard to imagine now, but Army had a respectable football team back in the 1990s.  When I was a cadet, we won three out of four contests against Navy, and the team went to the Liberty Bowl in either 1996 or 1997--and played very well.  To put it mildly, Army's sports dons let this go to their heads.  They decided to try to really compete, ultimately creating chaos.  This meant firing Coach Bob Sutton and going away from the option, and here we are fifteen years later, and we still haven't recovered.

I don't know what the new logos, lettering, numbering, etc. look like, but I am more than ready to go away from the "Black Knights" era.  Speaking historically, students at West Point are and always have been "cadets".  This is who and what they are.  Jettisoning "Black Knights" to me means jettisoning fifteen years of athletic overreach and failure.  That's a good thing.

The coming season is my first as an Army Football season ticket holder.
I've seen a few folks posting on social media saying that the change is being brought on for gender-related reasons, that "cadet" is more gender-neutral than is "Black Knight".  This is not true for two reasons.  One, a lady can be knighted, at which point she becomes "Dame So-and-So" not "Sir So-and-So", but in any event, she is still a knight.  Granted, it's a British tradition that has no place in the United States Military Academy.  Still, the gender usage is both clear and non-specific.  More imporantly, however, "cadet" is not gender neutral at all.  In fact, the female version of the word is "cadette", as any Girl Scout can tell you.  However, by acknowledging that women can be "cadets", we acknowledge that they can now serve where once they were not allowed, which is both right and appropriate.  The same could be said of Navy's Midshipmen.

So.  This change is all about a return to tradition and not about any kind of political correctness.  Frankly, a return to West Point's true traditions is long overdue.

Also in this series:

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