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“Sooner”: Is the Word Controversial?

100 years of university history under Millennial scrutiny.

Over the past year, my alma mater has become ground zero for serious conversations about race equality and inclusiveness. Many of the student-level reforms have sparked healthy growth throughout the university. The most recent trend, however, is drawing lines in sand.

Throughout the fall semester, student groups at OU have begun dropping the word Sooner from their names. The word “Sooner” historically refers to settlers who received government authority to a free 160 acres of Oklahoma land per person at the expense of Native Americans, and is now being targeted as a word that excludes Native Americans on campus. Students have expressed their desire for the word to be stripped at the university level.

Here’s where the line drawing begins, however. The University of Oklahoma, now more than 100 years old, identifies its students, alumni and stakeholders as “Sooners.” There is a four-generation deep modern definition of Sooners that has been remolded around the school’s identity, pride and, for many people, its football.

As this story gains momentum with the media, many alumni and state residents are storming social media, enraged at the idea that a grassroots student movement could potentially lead to a chain reaction stripping the identity of “Sooners” from the university.

Here’s a quick and condensed breakdown of this story’s history:

President David Boren releases a statement in response to a student group petitioning the name “Sooner.” Boren said it would take agreement from nearly all 245,000 living alumni to remove it at the university level.

The media coverage on the issue begins Sept. 30th with a story in the campus paper cataloging student groups that have begun to disassociate with the word Sooner by removing it from their organizations' names.

Media attention hits a broader level as more student organizations begin dropping the name.

The angry alumni emerge on Facebook.

Now before I share my opinions, I must adhere to the new modern American standard of online discourse and give you an exhaustive list of disclaimers: this is my alma mater, and I am a second generation “Sooner” with 8+ alumni in my extended family. I know students who are spearheading the removal of “Sooner” from clubs—students who I find to be highly intelligent, charismatic individuals who are making changes with only the goal of inclusiveness in mind. I am not Native American, but rather a white / male / southern / conservative who from a demographic perspective may look similar to the historical Sooners from the Oklahoma land run.

My Opinion in a Few Words:

Changing Names of Organizations = Okay

Changing Name of University students / alumni / stakeholders = Not Okay

Why Changing the Name of Organizations is Okay

Each student organization at the University of Oklahoma is an independent, autonomous entity. While they report to and are dependent on higher authorities for funding, they possess the right and privilege to change their name. If they wanted to, they could even name the club after a university rival (OSU Cowboys, UT Longhorns, or any other Big 12 Team).

Individual organizations maintain that right. Restricting or fighting back against them would be a huge violation of student and civil rights. Organizations should have the autonomy to choose a name that suits their members.

Why Changing the Name of University students / alumni / stakeholders is Not Okay

1. Historical vs. Modern Meaning of Sooner

If you say the word “gay” today, most people will not take your meaning to be “happy.” They will most likely assume you are referencing homosexuals or the broader LGBTQ community. That’s because as a society we’ve repurposed the word to have a new meaning in modern culture, and that new meaning carries the weight in conversations. Here’s a few other words that have changed over the years:

Source: Mirror.co.uk

If you want to take a much more serious example, consider the fact that Americans in my grandfather’s generation used to say German = Nazi. Now Germany has redefined its national identity around nature preservation, state pride and innovation in renewable energy resources. Today, German ≠ Nazi.

In all these cases, I observe people trending toward using the more modern definition and leaving the older ones in disuse. Why, then, would some students choose to overlook 100 years of redefining the definition of “Sooner” to rehash the historic definition and challenge the university?

2. Removing “Sooner” Strips the Identity of a People Group

Entertain this thought experiment: what if the bond of university is strong enough to qualify as a people group? (Not an entirely bizarre concept—spending 4-5 years anywhere with a 30,000+ people is more than enough time to create a significant identifying label. We’ve certainly created demographics around less.)

Imagine 245,000 people who invested years of their life to study or work under the identity of a “Sooner”. There are 47 countries in the world today with smaller populations. Imagine going to any of those 47 countries and saying that the title for their citizens offends some of their population, and therefore the entire country needs to change.

Source: Worldometers

But in all seriousness here, take that into account. The umbrella term "Sooner" is a label that unites White, Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, Europeans, Africans, Undergraduate, Graduate, Rich, Poor, In-a-Frat, Not-in-a-Frat, Disabled, Christians, Atheists, Straights, Gays, 18-year-old Freshmen, 60-year-old Alumni-- it unites all these splintered groups under one common identity. If we have nothing else in common, we have our shared collegiate heritage and university pride. Break down that identity, and I fear the university will become more exclusive and fragmented, not less.

Does this discount the voices of Native American students? Absolutely not. I believe their concerns can be addressed-- and that they are addressed as individual organizations make the choice to opt out of associating with Sooner. However, eradicating the identity of Sooner from nearly 250,000 individuals may damage more identities and communities than it restores.

In Conclusion?

Change the names of your student groups. It is a good thing to create a space for anyone and everyone on campus—the modern university is a construct that allows room for all types to enter, learn and do community. However, changing names at the university level is using the outdated, historical meaning of a word to attack the identities of hundreds of thousands of former students who came before you and are proud to be called a Sooner still.

If you believe OU should strip its title of “The Sooner Nation” to appease students, I would encourage you to think twice. Polishing the political correctness odometer may not be worth the sacrifice of 100 years of university history and stripping the title of Sooner from nearly a quarter million people.

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