The mirrored tile of the University Center Building’s northern elevator currently displays an unfamiliar face: an empty face, plus a blond beard and a gray helmet. The Portland State Athletic Department recently launched a marketing campaign to promote its Winter and Spring programs, particularly the 2014–2015 men’s basketball season. Part of the campaign was designed by PSU’s student-run advertising agency, FIR. A series of stickers depicting the Viking mascot without a face were placed on windows and reflective surfaces around campus. The stickers show a gray Viking helmet and a light blond beard outlining a blank space where the face of the mascot would normally go.
The idea, according to Anthony Vu, marketing director for the Athletic Department, was that students, seeing their faces outlined by the helmet and beard, would be reminded of their membership within PSU’s community and that hopefully this would foster school spirit and fill seats in upcoming athletics events.
The campaign has stirred up questions of cultural sensitivity, accessibility and inclusiveness of the PSU community as a whole.
The decals were okayed by several buildings on campus, but members of the Smith Memorial Student Union Advisory Board objected to the stickers. The board voted in a four-to-four split; a majority vote would’ve been needed to allow the stickers to be placed in the building.
Jonathen Gates, a student voting member of the SMSU board said he opposed the sticker campaign because it could alienate members of the PSU community.
“There was definitely some concern about cultural sensitivity,” Gates said. “Particularly considering that [SMSU] is supposed to be this place where every student should be welcome.”
Shay Davis, a student member of the SMSU Advisory Board, said he voted in favor of allowing the stickers in SMSU.
“I saw a situation where I personally think our sports program and athletics in general is lacking and can use all the help it can get,” Davis said.
“I can see how people think it’s offensive,” he said.
Davis added that his intention is not to comment on the appropriateness of PSU’s mascot itself.
“I’m trying to separate the two things, because I wasn’t there trying to say whether our mascot is right or wrong,” Davis said.
Those who voted against the stickers in SMSU argued that the blond, bearded depiction of the school’s mascot raised questions of race and gender inclusion.
Gates also expressed concern that the board did not have enough time to make an informed decision on allowing the stickers to be placed in SMSU, citing FIR’s desire to place the stickers in SMSU two days after the boards deliberation.
“I kept complaining that it’s not enough time,” he said. “I want at least two weeks to think about this. I think really the cultural appropriateness and the appropriateness for the union, the need to be a safe space was ultimately the driving force behind the decision there.”
Gates said he thought it would have been more appropriate to have more advanced notice.
“That was not a position of the rest of the board, but the major agreement point of most of the membership was…The members that voted it down were of the position that there were cultural sensitivity issues that we just couldn’t really house within [SMSU],” he said.
“The point is that there are still students for whom that display would be alienating,” Gates continued. “Students with disabilities, students with accessibility difficulties.”
In the minutes recapping the Feb. 9 SMSU Advisory Board meeting where the decals were ultimately voted down, voting members discussed the potential drawbacks to the stickers. Rayleen Mcmillan, a student voting member of the board, voted against the stickers.
According to the minutes, McMillan, who declined to comment for this story, said, “There are some serious cultural issues to be considered.”
Davis, according to the minutes, said that it was not up to the board to make moral decisions.
“It’s strange that we can’t use our mascot to promote athletics.”
Another voting member, Kristine Wise, echoed Davis’s concerns and said that the board might be overthinking the stickers, to which, according to the minutes, McMillan responded in the minutes, “It is part of our role to decide what is appropriate for this building.”
Brian Hustoles, one of the board’s advisors, said, “I thought the board had a robust discussion about it.”
Hustoles said the SMSU board was asked to make a decision because they have a unique managerial infrastructure.
“[SMSU] actually has building management, so they wanted to give it to us before we went ahead and approved it,” Hustoles said.
“It’s my understanding that this particular item was an Art Review Commitee decision,” Hustoles said. “There’s an Art Review Commitee on campus that looks at new art infastructures where [SMSU] was afforded the opportunity to discuss the matter.”
“I definitely think other buildings should have paid attention,” Gates said.
Neither FIR nor the Athletics program had anticipated the board’s decision, according to Doug Lowell, Professor of Advertising at PSU and director of FIR. Advisory boards from other buildings unanimously allowed the advertisements to be placed in their buildings, with the exception of the Millar Library, who did not allow the stickers but have not yet commented on their decision.
“The FIR agency was founded from a seed grant from Tim Boyle, from Columbia Sportswear, and part of our charter, one of the reasons he did this, is to provide support for Viking Athletics,” Lowell said. “We’ve never run into complaints like this before. It really caught us by surprise.”
Vu expressed similar surprise at the board’s reaction.
“I certainly didn’t expect for anyone to raise concerns about the stickers,” Vu said. “From within the athletics department, there was the expectation that, since the whole thing was about raising school spirit, people would be enthusiastic about the promotions.”
The complaints were particularly unexpected because the athletics department is frequently lauded as a means to achieve diversity on-campus. Vu said he had not heard of any complaints from within the department.
“We haven’t heard anything like that,” Vu said. “To my knowledge, this is the first time anyone’s had that reaction to our mascot in that way.”
“The point of the whole campaign has been to raise student interest in our athletics department,” said Ashley Bartels, FIR member and designer of the campaign.
Bartels added, “The stickers were to show that you’re a Viking no matter who you are.”
The complaints came as Bartels wraps up the advertising program for this year.
Next for FIR and the Athletic Department is promotion for the fall sports season, and with it will come a new marketing program. FIR and the athletics department plan to learn from the feedback they have received with this campaign and alter those in the future accordingly.
“You always want to take into account any kind of response,” Lowell said. “Even when you hear about a negative response from a very small minority, you still want to take that into account. But it’s my understanding that the majority of people at PSU don’t feel that way.”
On choosing mascots
Vikings are often portrayed as violent colonists in pop culture, which has raised broader questions about whether or not the mascot should be representative of PSU.
“I prefer mascots that don’t use humans in any form,” Gates said. “I am as concerned about the Portland State Vikings mascot as I [would be] about the Washington Redskins.”
Davis said the board meeting was not the right context to address changing the mascot itself.
“When it comes to [changing] the mascot… I don’t know what the right course of action would be,” Davis said. He suggested getting involved with student government as a way to start a conversation about the mascot.
“The only way to actually get something efficiently done—especially something as broad as changing our mascot—is going to be an arduous process,” Davis said.
“It’s not going to be even something that solidarity could pull together in the sense that it can’t just be a protest thing,” he continued. “It has to ultimately be done institutionally, Even if it starts as a protest movement, it still has to fall into that institutional framework to change it. I’m sure that wouldn’t be easy.”
Thomas Birnie, an adjunct assistant professor in PSU’s Scandinavian Studies department, said, “In spite of their reputation for pillage and plunder, they were also effective and highly organized administrators in the territories they colonized. They produced artists renowned in skills from woodworking to delicate gold filigree. Their mythology was as complex as those of the Greeks and Romans.”
Lowell commented on women’s role in Viking history.
“It turns out that women within Viking culture had more rights than many other communities of Western Europe at the time, including the right to divorce and the right to inheritance,” Lowell said. “If you actually look into it, it’s a very rich history.”
“I definitely understand where people are coming from when they say it’s offensive in terms of what Vikings did as a people,” Davis said. “But I also understand that basically almost any organized group of human beings that you can research in the past 5,000 years, you can point to something that is extremely horrible in their intentions and the way they acted as a group.”
Gates, who also serves as ASPSU University Affairs director, said he is involved in conversations about inclusiveness and accessibility on a daily basis, which adds to his concern about the imagery of the stickers in question.
Gates said he would have been more comfortable with the campaign if the sticker had just been a helmet.
“The blond hair and the beard added a lot of concern,” Gates said. “There was also the sexual messaging, for instance, that apparently athletes all have beards, strong powerful Vikings all have blond beards. And there was cultural messaging, about the desire to have this image.”
“The point is it’s potentially alienating, but I have not heard a great outcry about it,” Gates said.
Additional reporting by Colleen Leary and Lisa Dunn.