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Death To The NCAA

Official George Washington University Statement: Hippos Are Not Free To Be Bold

WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 26: Sophomore Paige James, center, touches a hippo statue for luck as she leads admitted George Washington University students and their parents on a tour of the campus before deciding on whether or not to enroll on April, 26, 2017 in Washington, DC.
Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images

In 1996, George Washington University was gifted a statue of a hippopotamus. It sits at 21st Street and H Street NW in Washington D.C. The school is also looking for a new mascot, announcing last year it would be retiring the Colonials nickname. Students have been petitioning the school to change its name to the Hippos since 2018. So problem solved, right? The George Washington Hippos would be unique and silly and reference an instantly recognizable campus statue. There are great merchandising opportunities, and I'm already excited by the mascot possibilities. This is a great situation with a perfect replacement name already in place.

Not so fast. Today the administration put out a release that the school’s new nickname would not be the hippos. The school explains in a release:

In releasing the guiding principles, the university also shared that “Hippos,” or variations of it, will not be considered in the moniker selection process. As a moniker, it would not align with the guiding principles and received negative feedback during engagement events from various members of the community, including student-athletes who are closely identified with the moniker in competition. The hippo and statue on campus will remain an important part of the university’s traditions.

The hippo statue was placed at the school by then-GW president Stephen Joel Trachtenberg (no relation to Michelle). It contains a wild inscription:

Legend has it that the Potomac was once home to these wondrous beasts. George & Martha Washington are even said to have watched them cavort in the river shallows from the porch of their beloved Mount Vernon on summer evenings. Credited with enhancing the fertility of the plantation, the Washingtons believed the hippopotamus brought them good luck and children on the estate often attempted to lure the creatures close enough to the shore to touch a nose for good luck.

The key word at the start of the inscription is “legend.” Trachtenberg made the whole thing up. He bought the hippo statue, while drunk, in Rhode Island. “I tried giving it to my wife, but she refused it,” he said in 2002, “so I gave it to the university, which couldn’t refuse it.” To me this is even more reason to make the school nickname the hippos. George Washington University has a hippo statue because its president made a stupid drunken purchase at a flea market and his wife told him to get rid of it. No legend about cavorting hippos in the Potomac is going to top that.

Traditions don’t have to make sense, though. People do apparently rub the hippos nose for luck in a way that children on the Washington estate never did. (Hippopotamuses are native to sub-Saharan Africa and never migrated to North America.) But GW says the hippo does not fit the guidelines for its new mascot.

The new moniker must be related to at least one of the themes outlined in the guiding principles as noted below:

  • Shaping the Future: This will honor GW’s long history developing students into leaders, doers and thinkers.
  • Free to Be Bold: This will symbolize the university’s trailblazing spirit.
  • At the Center of Power: This will reflect the energy and drive that brings the GW community to Washington, D.C., to be changemakers on the world stage.

There’s a lot to take in here. GW appears to be doing a consultant-driven branding by committee—corporate bullshit that will only lead to an incredibly stupid, boring nickname that is worse than Hippos. It will probably end up like the St. John’s Red Storm; St. John's dropped its (offensive) old nickname but is often called the “Johnnies” and has a mascot named Johnny Thunderbird. The George Washington Patriots or George Washington Changemakers, or whatever they wind up being, will probably mostly go on being called “GW.”

But GW’s reasoning for the nickname’s inappropriateness is absurd. Forget that the school has “guiding principles” for its new mascot. Hippos absolutely shape the future. They are free to be bold. And they are certainly at the center of power.

To the first point, re: the future, a 2019 study found hippo shit plays a key role in maintaining ecosystems. "Free to be bold" also seems like an understatement given that hippos are (or, in some cases, were) the kings of sub-Saharan African river systems, and as such can do what they want. They also have no common predator. This puts them at the center of power!

In my reading, hippos absolutely fit GW's desired framework. If George Washington University does not want its school mascot to be named after the gaudy statue its former president drunkenly purchased and then forced the school to display, that’s fine. But they should come out and say it. Bring out a current basketball player to tell the public he’s embarrassed by the nickname “hippos” or whatever. Then I’ll believe. Because by GW’s current standards, a hippo is more than a fitting nickname.

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