Occurrence of religious symbolism in U.S. sports team names and mascots

Occurrence of religious symbolism in U.S. sports team names and mascots

The following is a list of American sports team names and mascots that draw upon religious symbolism. Given the prevalence of Christian groups and institutions in the United States, the vast majority of these symbols, though basically generic, can be assumed to come from Christian sources. However, teams deriving their image from symbols belonging to other systems of religious and pseudo-religious belief have also been included, and where a lack of symbolic representation in the sports world is conspicuous—as with Jewish teams and organizations—there follows discussion as to why.


Mascots as visual representation

Sports clubs and teams base their image or mascot on variety of factors, such as the desire of athletes to pick a symbol that will convey the things they are supposed to possess, such as strength, courage, aggression and endurance. Scholars have drawn connections to confirm this between desires such as these and the religious totems found in polythesim, where visual representations of animals are used as symbols to express the physical and spiritual qualities of community.[1] In this adoration of a mascot by a school or company can be seen as religiously significant. However, economic factors must also be considered as both schools and sports franchise owners want to make money. Just as vast revenue can be generated by an appealing, marketable symbol so can profits be lost if the symbol in question, is offensive enough to alienate potential fans. This consideration as well can explain why sectarian religious symbols are rarely used in sports team names and mascots.

Most of the teams listed here belong to schools and not franchises. The reasons for why are subject to debate. Schools are places where administrators, teachers, and parents act as a community to give students education in local values and in many places these values come from religious institutions like churches and synagogues. So schools often become de facto representatives of a community's religious ideals as well as visual representatives of that community at a state, national, and international level. These conditions combine to make school sports a place for religious symbols, after they get filtered through the secular values of both the nation at large and sport itself. This filtering produces mixed-value mascots like "Demon Deacons" of Wake Forest University and the "Hustlin' Quakers" of U. Penn.

Despite the politically sensitive nature of religious issues in America there has not been much controversy over religious imagery in sport. Subtle spins on generic symbols like the crusader have come under attack for their insensitivity, but by and large religiously inspired team names and mascots have not been scrutinized. This is in contrast to team names and mascots from Native American cultural sources. This should be a point of interest in studying sport and religion in America.

Catholic symbolism

There seems to be a clustering of religiously inspired mascots and team symbols in the American Midwest. This area's population is predominantly Protestant or Calvinist and the culture of the Midwest tends to be conservative. This may be a reason for the preponderance of religion symbolism in even non-religious schools and institutions, but does not explain why this symbolism would be Catholic in nature.

The institutions listed below—some of which are Catholic—endorse religious symbolism either by the team name or individual mascots. Some are negative, menacing symbols such as the various Demons and Devils, but a majority of them take on positive connotations within Catholicism. These include the Saints, Angels, Friars and Knights. The latter is considered Catholic because knights were agents of the Catholic Church[dubious ] and, like crusaders, helped in converting individuals (sometimes by force) and "protecting the faith" against outside enemies.

Colleges and universities

Primary, middle, and secondary schools

  • Archbishop Bergan Knights
  • Grand Island Central Crusaders
  • Mount Michael Benedictine Catholic Knights
  • Norfolk Catholic Knights (VA)
  • Omaha Marian Crusaders
  • St. Thomas Aquinas Knights

Non-affiliated sports teams and franchises

Drum corps

  • The Saints drum corp, sponsored by Our Lady of Peace Church in Fords, N.J. Their original hats had a cross in the center of the medallion, and the Saints logo is the intersection of a halo and a cross. They disbanded in 1987.[4]
  • The Knights Drum and Bugle Corp in Kewanee, Illinois (discontinued in 1998).[5]
  • Black Knights Drum Corps of Burbank, California (discontinued in 2001).[6]
  • Rochester Crusaders Drum Corp of Rochester, New York.[7]
  • Boston Crusaders Drum & Bugle Corps, founded in 1932, is the second-oldest junior drum and bugle corps in the nation and a founding member of Drum Corps International.[8]
  • California Crusaders Drum Corp in Carson, California (discontinued in 1979)
  • Conquistadors Drum Corp from Southern San Francisco, CA
  • Emerald Knights Drum Corp of Cedar Rapids, Iowa

Issue related to "The Crusaders"

The University of the Incarnate Word decided in 2007 that it would perhaps be seen to be more open to students, instructors and parents of different faiths. The school decided that the name was "inappropriate for a Catholic institution with a multicultural mission." [9]

Corlis McGee, president of Eastern Nazarene College, said, "There's a growing awareness that the connotation of the word has changed, and the Crusader no longer represents the positive message of Christian love we want to share with the world." Other universities have decided to keep the mascot as a way to honor their histories and constantly remind students to "communicate our desire to bring the good news and cross into every situation we encountered." [10]

Schools who have done away with the "Crusaders" mascot include Eastern Nazarene College (now the Lions), The University of the Incarnate Word (the new mascot, the Cardinals, was chosen by students) and Wheaton College.

Other schools have retained the name "Crusaders" as their team name and mascot, including Valparaiso University,[11] and the Northwest Nazarene University.[12]

Protestant symbolism

Included here are team names and mascots associated with Protestantism. As the list suggests the visual vocabulary of non-Catholic Christianity, particularly in American sport, does not differ significantly from Catholic Christianity. What distinguishes this section has less to do with symbols themselves and more with context. Six of these schools are affiliated with the NCAA and one is affiliated with the NAIA.

Interestingly, the majority of these schools are located in Southeastern coastal states like North Carolina or South Carolina. In this part of the country religiously affiliated colleges and universities have existed since colonial times, when the majority of European Americans living in North American colonies were Protestant Christians. The religiously inspired team names and mascots are a part of this legacy, and associations between school spirit and local religious belief are therefore more historically acceptable in this part of the country.[13]

Still, it is interesting that, in spite of this legacy, the teams at most Protestant affiliated colleges and schools do not identify with religious symbols. There are nearly 1,000 Protestant colleges and universities in the U.S. alone.[14] But out of all of these, only 14 identify with religious names or mascots. That's less than 1%.

This makes sense, because not all of these names and mascots were inspired by religion. The origin of the famous Duke Blue Devil mascot for instance can be traced back to the World War I era. Units of French soldiers called "les Diables Beus" marshalled won fame in America. They inspired the Duke student body to make the Blue Devil the school's official mascot in 1911. The name was much more unpopular with the Methodism than with anyone else.[15]

The inspiration for a name or mascot also comes from relationships and in particular, rivalries with other schools. Until 1937 Wake Forest's men's athletics teams were known as "the Deacons," "the Baptists," or "Old Gold and Black." But after hiring a new coach and having way more success the school was looking for a way to show its prowess. They beat Duke in a game of football and the president prasied them for "fighting like demons" to clinch the win, so the name stuck [1]. So the process of inventing an image for a sports team comes from relationships. Clubs and teams can make their images visual reminders of a meaningful moment in school nhisotry. Again, the suggested correlation between sports team mascots and the totems comes in to play as some Native American tribes mixed images of vanquished enemies with their own to assimilate their powers.

Powerful images of demons, devils and knights remind us of the mascots of Catholic teams, but Protestant teams also draw on symbols from their own beliefs, generally involving religious leadership and including Deacons, Preachers, Evangels, Quakers and Fightin Christians.

There are no professional teams that use distinctly symbolism, maybe because of differences between different denominations and their beliefs. But it is probably explained better by the lack of religious symbols in pro-team names whose economic motives to reach a wider audience drive them to less sectarian symbolism.

Colleges and universities

Primary, middle, and secondary schools

  • Lincoln Christian School Crusaders (GA)
  • Southside Christian School Sabres (SC)
  • Christ Church Episcopal School Cavaliers (SC)
  • Shannon Forest Christian School Crusaders (SC)
  • Franklin Central School Purple Devils (NY)

Other religions

  • Orlando Magic, professional basketball
  • Washington Wizards, professional basketball
  • Dakota Wizards, professional basketball [17]
  • Kansas City Wizards, professional soccer (Originally called the Wiz, now called Sporting Kansas City)[18]
  • Stockton Thunder, professional hockey uses the Norse god Thor as mascot

Generic and/or ambiguous

Most teams with mascots such as "Devils" or "Wizards" have little to no affiliation with any religious groups. They may choose their mascots for the purpose of intimidating their opponents. Mascots are usually depicted as mischievous or even cute and have little spiritual representation. Devils are one of the most common mascots throughout American sports. This can likely be attributed to Christian beliefs being the most common of religions in the U.S. The devil is normally used as a fierce, intimidating image to represent teams.

Colleges and universities

  • Arizona State University Sun Devils, mascot Sparky the Sun Devil
  • Dickinson College Red Devils
  • Farleigh Dickinson University (Metropolitan Campus) Knights
  • Farleigh Dickinson College at Florham Devils
  • Furman University Paladians (SC)
  • Northwestern State University of Louisiana Demons, mascot Vic the Demon
  • Old Dominion University Monarchs
  • Rutgers University at New Brunswick Scarlet Knights
  • UCF Knights
  • United States Military Academy Black Knights

Primary, middle, and secondary schools

  • Plattsmouth Community School Blue Devils
  • South Platte Public School Blue Knights
  • Wayne Community School Blue Devils
  • Wynot Public School Blue Devils
  • A.C. New Knights

Non-affiliated sports teams and franchises

  • New Jersey Devils, professional hockey
  • Albany Devils, professional hockey [19]
  • Sacramento Kings, professional basketball. Mascot Slamson the Lion, an allusion to the Old Testament figure Samson.
  • Idaho Falls Chukars, professional baseball. Formerly the Angels (1964–81), the Braves (1986–91, 93-99), and the Padres (2000–03).
  • Fort Meyers Miracle, professional baseball

See also


  1. ^ http://royal-holloway.com/Drama/platform/issues/Vol.3No.1/Mascots.pdf
  2. ^ http://blogs.chron.com/believeitornot/2010/02/rooting_for_religion_the_saint_1.html
  3. ^ http://web.minorleaguebaseball.com/index.jsp
  4. ^ http://www.dci.org/news/view.cfm?news_id=babdd5af-2b09-4173-acea-23c3fd1400fd
  5. ^ http://www.knightscorps.org/corps-history/
  6. ^ http://www.blackknights.org/
  7. ^ http://www.rochestercrusaders.org/
  8. ^ http://www.bostoncrusaders.com/
  9. ^ http://www.mysanantonio.com/sports/MYSA23_01A_COL_UIW_nickname_change_5778672d_html5616.html
  10. ^ http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2000/june12/12.18.html
  11. ^ http://www.valpoathletics.com/
  12. ^ http://www.nnusports.com/
  13. ^ http://education.stateuniversity.com/pages/1860/Colleges-Universities-with-Religious-Affiliations.html
  14. ^ http://www.schoolsintheusa.com/ChristianCollegesUniversities.cfm
  15. ^ http://library.duke.edu/uarchives/history/histnotes/why_blue_devil.html
  16. ^ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elon_University
  17. ^ http://www.nba.com/dleague/dakota/
  18. ^ http://www.sportingkc.com
  19. ^ http://www.thealbanydevils.com/

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