Anatomy of a Mascot

Students at the storied Radnor High said their team symbol, the Red Raider, was racist and vowed to change it. Alumni fought back with surprising vehemence.

Mark McKeon, outgoing captain of the school’s football team. who said that the players respect their classmates’ antiracism efforts, but want to keep the Raider name.Credit…Hannah Beier for The New York Times

Anatomy of a Mascot

Students at the storied Radnor High said their team symbol, the Red Raider, was racist and vowed to change it. Alumni fought back with surprising vehemence.

Mark McKeon, outgoing captain of the school’s football team. who said that the players respect their classmates’ antiracism efforts, but want to keep the Raider name.Credit…Hannah Beier for The New York Times

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RADNOR, Pa.– This affluent 340-year-old township of 31,000 residents on the Main Line has long been a bastion of gentility and geniality. “The Philadelphia Story,” that arch drawing-room comedy starring Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn, was set in Radnor, and its public high school served as the inspiration for Rydell High in the film version of “Grease,” directed by a 1964 graduate, Randal Kleiser.

During the last year, however, a battle has been waged over the high school’s mascot: a Native American warrior known as the Radnor Red Raider.

Some alumni argue that there is nothing offensive about the name or the Native American imagery, adopted in the mid-1960s in honor of a beloved coach, Emerson Metoxen, a chief of the Oneida Tribe. “Red” refers to the school’s colors: red and white, meant to distinguish its teams from its Central League opponents, the Ridley Green Raiders.

But many students, with the backing of the majority of the school board, believe the moniker and the mascot are noninclusive at best, and racist at worst. The National Congress of American Indians, the American Psychological Association and the National Museum of the American Indian concur.

“Multiple studies prove that these mascots, which are stereotypes of Native American people, cause real damage,” said Paul Chaat Smith, a curator for the museum and a member of the Comanche Nation. “It affects self-image, self-confidence and self-worth, which is the opposite of the goal of the people who put forth these names in the first place.”

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Te exterior of the school would typically be bustling. This year, much of the action was online.Credit…Hannah Beier for The New York Times

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The familiar maroon and whiite and “R,” on display in the gymnasium.Credit…Hannah Beier for The New York Times

The controversy has revealed long-simmering conflicts within the constituency: Republicans vs. Democrats; longtime residents vs. transplants; whites vs. people of color; blue collar vs. white collar; even jocks vs. nerds. And it has brought out the high-school student in everyone involved, with name calling, finger pointing, public shaming and lawn sign stealing.

“We didn’t divide this community,” Susan Stern, the president of the school board, said during a virtual special meeting on the subject in May. “We revealed the divide.”

What’s in a Name?

The school’s attachment to its mascot is obvious driving onto campus: Raider Road winds past the playing fields and buildings; the dugout at the baseball diamond reads “RADNOR RAIDERS” and school’s logo — a big “R” set in a circle trimmed with two feathers — painted large in white on a maroon wall. The enormous placard of a Native American warrior in profile that loomed over the football field bleachers for decades was only removed late last winter, when the school began a long overdue $29.7 million redesign of the stadium and fields to meet Americans With Disabilities Act requirements.

Radnor High School opened in 1893 and soon developed its team colors and symbol (which Mr. Kleiser employed for the fictional Rydell High). But the first known use of “Raiders” appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer in 1934, according to a Radnor Township School Board report published in August 2020.

“No evidence has been found that the name or ‘red’ was inspired by or in reference to Native Americans, including the Lenape” — the Indigenous tribe active in the area — the report states. “Some believe the name may have been tied to the term ‘dry raiders’ that emerged during Prohibition.”

Chief Metoxen joined the faculty in 1943. Born in Green Bay, Wis., in 1899, he was in the Oneida Tribe’s Turtle Clan and had attended the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, a Native American boarding school in Carlisle, Pa. After serving in World War I and earning a master’s in education from Harvard, he led physical education programs and a steel company before being recruited by the Radnor school district to teach gym and coach football, basketball and baseball, guiding several teams to championships. He regularly lectured about Native American history and culture to local groups, such as the Daughters of the American Revolution and Cub Scouts, at times dressed in full Oneida regalia.

“Everyone loved him and called him ‘Chief,'” Mr. Kleiser remembered.

In the spring of 1964 — Chief Metoxen’s last season before he retired — Radnor High School’s student council held a contest to select a mascot to embody the Raider nickname. The student body chose a Native American, like their revered chief.

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Dave Luce, an alunus, holds his high school yearbook with a photo of himself as the Radnor Raiders mascot in Malvern, Pa.Credit…Hannah Beier for The New York Times

The student tapped to be the first “Raider” was sent by the school administration to a professional costumer in Philadelphia to be fitted in formal Native American dress: a caramel-suede tunic and pants, trimmed with fringe and beading, and a feathered headdress. The student was required to meet with Chief Metoxen to learn Native American dances, culture and heritage. During the inaugural season — fall of 1965 — the Raider appeared only at the football game against neighboring Lower Merion (one of the nation’s longest-running gridiron rivalries) and the pregame pep rally. In time, however, the Radnor Raider became a regular presence on the sideline, leading cheers and war chants.

“It was fun, I goofed off — that’s what a mascot is supposed to do,” recalled Dave Luce, a 60-year-old local entrepreneur and Radnor alum who served as the Raider in 1978. “Never a parent, never a student, never a teacher said anything about it being inappropriate. All I got was positive reinforcement.”

Back then, Radnor kids, most of whom were white — I was one, graduating in ’81 — played Cowboys and Indians and watched “The Lone Ranger” reruns on television. In the township’s elementary schools, we learned about the Lenni Lenape tribe and put on Thanksgiving plays. For athletic events, we were encouraged by teachers and administrators, most of whom were also white, to dress up in Native American-like gear and war paint.

Radnor Township School District has long prided itself as one of the top 10 best public schools in Pennsylvania — U.S. News and World Report currently ranks it No. 4 — and the high school has a 97 percent graduation rate. It also now has a far more diverse student body than during my time there. In the 2019-2020 school year, 42 percent of Radnor Township School District’s 2,661 students were BIPOC. Of those 1,138 students of color, four were classified as American Indian/Alaska Native.

A Descendant Speaks

In 2005, the American Psychological Association called for “the immediate retirement of all American Indian mascots, symbols, images and personalities by schools, colleges, universities, athletic teams and organizations,” citing research on the social identity development and self-esteem of young Indigenous people.

“These negative lessons are not just affecting American Indian students,” wrote Ronald F. Levant, former president of the A.P.A. “They are sending the wrong message to all students.”

As Mr. Smith of the National Museum of the American Indian points out: “There are no high school teams named Black People of Philadelphia. You don’t see the San Francisco Chinamen or the L.A. Chicanos. But you have hundreds and hundreds of Native American names.”

In Radnor, “at least since 2006, we have had concerns raised about the name and related imagery,” said Michael Petitti, the director of communications for Radnor Township School District. In 2013, the school retired the cheerleading personage, which, since Mr. Luce’s time, had acquired a cartoonish Native American bobblehead.

“This has been an issue for quite a long time and we’ve pushed it off,” Charles Madden, a board member and former co-captain of the Radnor football team, said then. “It’s bigger than the school community. It’s bigger than the high school.”

The ruling briefly “prompted a larger discussion” among board members, Mr. Petitti said. “But it did not take off. It was tabled and left there.” Radnor High School athletes continued to compete as Red Raiders, in uniforms emblazoned with the feathered logo. The marching band still played the “Tomahawk Chop” song at pep rallies and football games, and fans smeared war paint on their cheeks and noses.

Student opposition to the Raider name appeared in the school paper, The Radnorite, in 2016, and then again in 2018, when Anne Griffin, its outgoing editor in chief, condemned the “Tomahawk Chop”: “Native Americans have lived on this land for millenniums. Our ‘long standing tradition’ of the cheer is a mere few decades old.”

In early 2020, a cheerleader expressed her discomfort with the rallying cries to the school’s activism club. This led the club’s president, Audrey Margolies, Ms. Griffin and two other students, Ellie Davis and Reese Hillman, to form Radnor for Reform, dedicated to removing cultural references from the school’s mascot. They got little traction, however, until the controversy regarding the name of the N.F.L. team in Washington, following the murder of George Floyd.

“We couldn’t help but look around and see the national momentum going towards the issue of racial justice, and Native American mascots specifically,” Ms. Davis said.

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Audrey Margolies, 18 and a leader of Radnor for Reform, at home before her high school graduation ceremony.Credit…Hannah Beier for The New York Times

Radnor for Reform was not the only such movement in the region. The Unionville-Chadds Ford School Board voted in August to discontinue the use of its high school team name, the Indian. B. Reed Henderson High School, in West Chester, had retired an American Indian mascot in 2006, but kept its nickname “Warriors.” Last winter, it replaced the imagery, inspired by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Song of Hiawatha,” with a knight.

This spring, Susquehannock High School dropped “Warriors” and Susquehanna Township nixed “Indians.” That left more than 1,000 school districts in the United States with Native-themed mascots, according to data from the National Congress of American Indians.

Among them is Pennsylvania’s Neshaminy School District, which according to its school board president, Marty Sullivan, has spent more than $400,000 in legal costs since 2013 to retain its nickname, the same as the Washington football team’s former name, viewed by many to be a racial slur. Earlier this month, the state appeals court ruled that the name does not violate Pennsylvania’s anti-discrimination law, and that the school could continue to use it for sports teams.

Radnor’s fellow Central League school, Ridley, adopted the Raider name in the mid-1930s to honor the Lenni Lenape tribe. In December, Ridley elected to keep “Raider.” “We haven’t had a mascot in several years,” Lee Ann Wentzel, the district’s superintendent, told The Delco Times. “The ‘Rocking R’ is our logo.”

Throughout the summer of 2020, Radnor for Reform, now 40-odd students, wrote letters to the school board. They spoke with academics, local Native American organizations and the National Congress of American Indians, then put their findings in a 40-page document. They bought old political campaign lawn signs from the League of Women Voters, painted them with the Radnor for Reform logo and “Retire the Raider” in red and white, and distributed them for free to supporters. “A lot were stolen,” Ms. Davis said. “I had five stolen from my house.”

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The leaders of Radnor for Reform hold a sign in support as part of their campaign.Credit…Hannah Beier for The New York Times

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Anneke van Rossum, 24, scrolls through her TikTok page, where she has created videos to advocate for replacing the Raider nickname and imagery.Credit…Hannah Beier for The New York Times

Alumni got wind of the renaming effort and turned their Facebook page into a Raider forum. Like the concurrent presidential campaign, the debate quickly devolved into extreme polarization and mudslinging. Pro-Raiders called the Radnor for Reform students and their supporters “snowflakes.” Anti-Raiders charged that anyone who wanted to keep the Raider name, even without the iconography, was racist.

In early August, the school board held a special meeting that lasted more than four hours. Mr. Petitti read into the record some 140 letters and comments from students, alumni and community members, for and against the Raider name.

Most powerful was from Leslie Greenfield, the granddaughter of Chief Metoxen, on behalf of his descendants. “We understand that some wish to perpetuate the name and imagery to ‘honor’ my grandfather,” Ms. Greenfield wrote. However, she continued, “we would like to express our deep conviction that using Native American imagery along with the name ‘Raiders’ perpetuates racial stereotypes and should no longer be used anywhere, but particularly not in an educational setting. The name ‘Raiders’ has negative connotations — synonyms include pillager, warmonger and aggressor. In the 21st century, and particularly following the recent protests for racial justice, we all need to understand that associating raiders with Native Americans in general, or my grandfather in particular, perpetuates a negative stereotype that simply is no longer acceptable.”

In September, when Radnor schools were remote, the school board voted 9-0 to remove all Native American imagery and 8-1 to stop using the Raider name.

That set off a new wave of vitriolic exchanges on the Facebook alumni page and bullying — in cyberspace and in person.

“We’re pariahs,” said Maya van Rossum, an ’84 graduate and environmental advocate married to Dave Wood, a Radnor physics teacher and hockey coach whose mother taught preschool in the township. They have a son who is a rising sophomore and a daughter, Anneke, who graduated in 2015 and is now studying law. The family has publicly lobbied to remove the Raider name. One Facebook post suggested: “If you see this family at a restaurant, make them uncomfortable.”

Over coffee in Minella’s Diner, Anneke told of having her face painted at age 15 for the Lower Merion football game. “I thought it was OK because it was a school-sanctioned activity,” she said. “I know people who have been bullied for not wearing face paint.”

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Radnor High School alumna Maya van Rossum, 56, in Bryn Mawr, Pa.Credit…Hannah Beier for The New York Times

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Ms. van Rossum holds a photo of herself running track for her high school’s team.Credit…Hannah Beier for The New York Times

Now, nine years later, she said, “someone went into my Facebook account — I didn’t even know that photo was there — did a screenshot of it, and reposted it. And the response was, ‘So you’re racist, because you engaged in it, then.'”

Ms. Margolies, one of the Radnor for Reform founders, said that the pro-Raider side questioned the group’s motives. “The things people told us or called us: ‘White girls looking for a problem to fix,’ ‘performative activism,’ ‘You’re just doing this for your college applications.’ So much stuff,'” she said. (Ms. Margolies is half Korean, rows crew and was captain of the swim team.)

“Obviously, there are students who completely disagree, but there’s a limit to the hostility, since I might have to sit next to you in chemistry class, and we’re going to potentially be assigned together for a group project,” Ms. Griffin said. “A lot of the slurs and the vitriol that have been spewed has really come from adults — the alumni.”

During the January school board meeting, Ms. Stern compared the polemic to the riot that month at the U.S. Capitol. “I’m not at all likening anyone in our community to the people who were involved,” she clarified immediately. “I’m speaking about the dynamic.”

“That’s what made this go,” said Laura Foran, a class of 1979 graduate, 20-year employee of the school district and Keep the Raider supporter. “The president of the school board said at a public meeting that those who were for keeping the Raider name were no different than the Capitol rioters.”

The next day, there was a Change.org petition demanding Ms. Stern’s immediate resignation. It has more than 1,200 signatures to date. Ms. Stern is holding firm. “I believe then, as I do now,” she said in a statement to The Times, “that we must continue to come together as a community, regardless of our differences or disagreements, to move forward together.”

The Result is In

The board forged on, creating a Mascot Selection and Rebranding Committee of 42 teachers, alumni and students, including Ms. Davis, chosen from 140 applications. First order of business: soliciting the community for name suggestions.

Of the 1,315 submitted, 992 were for Raider. This was seen as “great news for the majority of the committee,” reported Cackie Martin, a sophomore committee member and alum offspring, in a Radnorite opinion piece stating she was the granddaughter of a Native American and did not consider “Raider” to be racist.

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The cast of the 1978 film, “Grease” in front of a sign reading “Welcome to Rydell High.” Rador High School was the inspiration for the fictional 1950s-era school.Credit…Paramount Pictures/Getty Images

The administration reaffirmed that Raider would not be an option.

Pro-Raiders support grew more vehement. During meetings, a few people read dictionary definitions of the word “raider.” Others huffed about how much rebranding would cost (roughly $157,000, including uniforms, wrestling mats, and replacing the center of the gymnasium floor), and demanded to know who was going to pay for it (the school budget). On a Monday morning in late April, 80 to 100 students, organized in part by Ms. Martin, walked out of Radnor High School, and marched around a playing field, carrying signs reading “Change the Mascot … Keep the Name.”

Many of the protesters were members of the football team, including last season’s captain, Mark McKeon, 18. During a chat on the school’s baseball bleachers earlier this month, Mr. McKeon insisted that the football players respect their classmates’ antiracism efforts and don’t want to offend people. However, he said, “day in and day out, we bleed, we sweat, we cry for each other on the football, lacrosse and baseball field. We work really hard together for the school and for the Raider. And what we feel is that they’re trying to take that away from us — the hard work that we’ve put in.”

“We should be able to just keep the name Raider and make the mascot something like a pirate,” chimed in his friend Owen Lewandowski, 19 and the captain of the baseball team, who also protested.

Shortly after the walkout, Mr. Luce, the ’78 alum, wrote a Facebook post stating that he wholly agreed with the school board’s decision to retire the imagery. But he, too, wished the Raider name could have rebranded — “like the Oakland Raiders,” he said to me. “Some people made some positive references to me being a good Raider. And one gentleman wrote, ‘You must be white and a male.’ I was called a bigot. I didn’t respond.”

During the special meeting in May, the surely weary board heard a motion put forth by three members to reconsider the Raider name as one of the choices.

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Owen Lewandowski, 19, the captain of the baseball team.Credit…Hannah Beier for The New York Times

Nancy Monahan, who had been the lone vote to retain it in September, said she believed the Radnor community “fully supports retirement of the imagery,” but that the “name never had its day in court,” and excluding it from the choices was “not being inclusive.” Until the Raider “is allowed to be an option, it will continue to be an issue,” she said.

After five hours, the board voted 6-3 to not include the Raider name in the list of choices.

Perhaps one upside of the palaver is that Radnor residents have become more politically engaged. Typically sleepy board meetings now draw thousands of attendees, and four Republicans in the community are running for four seats held currently by Democrats, including Ms. Stern, that are up for re-election in November.

“We have lived here a long time but resent what’s happening to our town,” said Ms. Foran, the ’79 alum and one candidate, in a phone interview. “I don’t want to come off as a white supremacist. I want the Raider because it means something to me and because I’ve lived here for 60 years. It’s important to me. There are much larger diversity and inclusion issues in Radnor. Like, let’s get diversity on the teaching staff. Instead, we are spending all this time on a Raider name. It’s unconscionable.”

The committee whittled down the non-Raider nominees to 57, including Rangers, the fictional Rydell team name. After running the names by community focus groups — “a train wreck,” said Ms. Griffin, “made up of people who are most passionate about it and were never going to support the other opinion” — the committee cut the list to eight: Dragons, Griffins/Gryphons, Hawks, Phoenix, Rain Frogs, Raptors, Ruckus and the letter R.

From there, Radnor’s eighth to 12th graders viewed an explanatory PowerPoint in homeroom of the eight names and voted online for their top four. They chose: Griffins/Gryphons, Raptors, Ruckus and R.

On Friday, June 11, the same 1,500 students had their first round of final voting online. In the days preceding the vote, students lobbied for R, handing out “We R Radnor” buttons in school. Anti-Raider supporters claimed the R was a pro-Raider symbol, like a racist dog whistle.

At lunchtime on that rainy Friday, the Radnor for Reform foursome gathered behind the cafeteria, on their way to the senior barbecue in the upper parking lot, to reflect on how their campaign had impacted their school, their town, and their lives.

“I’ve learned how to work with people, how to listen to people, and it informed me on politics and the world,” said Ms. Margolies, who is heading to Emory University for pre-med.

“We put in the work and we made our voices heard, and our school board listened to us,” said Ms. Hillman, a rising senior who will be captain of the Radnor’s Ultimate Frisbee team next year. “And at the end of the day, they upheld the work that we’ve done, which is demonstrative of the fact that to create change you have to put in the work and stay vigilant.”

Last Monday, the students chose Raptors in a runoff with R. And one side, at least, was satisfied.

“The real way you go about political change is by doing the research, crafting documents,” said Ms. Griffin, who will study political science at Penn State this fall. “You can’t go against the system if you want to make change. You really have to work with the people who are making the decisions. That’s what we did best.”

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