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LSU live mascot Mike the Tiger enjoys the lazy days of spring break while prowling around in his habitat on campus Wednesday April 17, 2019, in Baton Rouge, La.

Back in 2017 when the latest Mike the Tiger was acquired, LSU President F. King Alexander was asked if he had problems with the origins of the tiger mascot being the fierce-fighting Confederate Army units.

A reasonable question, as then-president Alexander was ordering a name change for Raphael Semmes Road that obliged the African American Cultural Center to include a Confederate admiral on their stationary.

In 1896, during the Confederate nostalgic "Lost Cause" movement when many of the recently dismantled statues were erected, the LSU football team was nicknamed the Tigers after Louisiana’s rebel fighters “who seemed to have the faculty of getting into the hardest part of the fighting and staying there,” wrote the first coach, Charles E. Coates.

The look on Alexander’s face lent credibility to his “I had no idea” response.

Having grown up near the University of Florida campus, the only issues surrounding LSU’s mascot for Alexander were whether the university should keep a live tiger on campus and whether by acquiring a rescue tiger, LSU was inadvertently supporting a somewhat sleazy industry that breeds tigers for roadside attractions and show-off pets.

“Change the Racist Mascot of LSU” petition gathered about 700 signatures and the attention of ESPN. Then the issue died down.

The Tiger mascot origins popped up last month when LSU removed from the library the name of Troy Middleton, a World War I and II hero who as president in the 1950s and 1960s worked to keep African Americans from enrolling. Gov. John Bel Edwards told the LSU Board of Supervisors on June 19: “LSU students shouldn’t be asked to study in a library bearing the name of someone who did not want them to be LSU students.”

This 1961 letter from LSU President Troy Middleton can be found in the Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas, in the …

Last week Washington’s NFL franchise announced it would retire its 88-year-old team name, which many found racist. On Thursday night, the Baton Rouge school board renamed Lee Magnet High School to Liberty High School. The Pentagon on Friday announced U.S. military installations would no longer fly flags with “divisive symbols.”

Confederate flags and monuments have become flashpoints for protesters across the country decrying racism in the wake of George Floyd’s death.

But changing LSU’s mascot seems to fall in a different category, particularly since definitions of what symbols are offensive remain unclear.

Interim LSU President Tom Galligan and LSU Board Chair Mary Werner didn't respond to requests for comment.

That left LSU spokesman Ernie Ballard III to explain Thursday that the mascot was much more associated with the live Mike the Tiger, than with its origins in the Confederacy. He pointed out that LSU’s focus on the tiger mascot is raising awareness of the plight of tigers in the wild.

“LSU is not planning to change the tiger mascot,” Ballard said.

The cat didn’t get the tongue of Richard Lipsey, one of LSU’s largest donors.

“Let’s live in the present and at the same time we can appreciate the past,” Lipsey wrote in a text Thursday. “Several generations of LSU alumni have loved our mascot and never given a second thought as to where the name originally came from.”

Meanwhile, LSU formed a committee to look for Confederate and segregationist totems. A couple dozen buildings on the Baton Rouge campus memorialize individuals with now unsavory pasts to varying degrees.

A number of Black students, for instance, are asked reside in dorms bearing the names of people who wanted to enslave them: prominent Confederate Gens. P.G.T. Beauregard and E. Kirby Smith, to name two.

But what about James Nicholson? He has a hall and major street named after him.

Nicholson entered 12th Louisiana Infantry, Company B as a teenager in 1861. He fought as a private and noncom until surrendering in Greensboro, N.C., at the end of the Civil War. He then studied math, became a professor and later LSU president.

“The obvious question is who and what is next, or is this just a gesture to prevent a current student crisis?” said Winston Day, a former law school chancellor.

LSU leadership may follow the path outlined last week by the University of Texas at Austin. That state’s flagship agreed to change building names and to erect statues and memorials to influential Black athletes and scholars. But UT is keeping its unofficial fight song, “The Eyes of Texas,” the lyrics of which were inspired by Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and set to a minstrel tune that the Longhorn nation initially performed in blackface.

Interim UT President Jay Hartzell wrote that the song so associated with Texas football created a teaching moment. “It is my belief that we can effectively reclaim and redefine what this song stands for by first owning and acknowledging its history in a way that is open and transparent,” Hartzell wrote.


Email Mark Ballard at mballard@theadvocate.com.