Admiral Ackbar changed the mascot conversation at Ole Miss

My heart sank a little this morning when I read Erik Bauersfeld — the voice of Star Wars’ “bulging-eyed, amphibious rebel commander” Admiral Ackbar — died Sunday at age 93.

I confess I’ve never seen any of the Star Wars movies (yeah, OK, I know), but for me, Admiral Ackbar forever will be linked to a time when my alma mater seemed perpetually trapped in conflict over its own racially divisive traditions with no clear sign it ever would move beyond the mistakes of its past.

Back in 2010, when Ole Miss students had the opportunity to decide whether they wanted to develop a new mascot, I was trying to survive my last semester as editor of the campus newspaper and recipient of near-constant hate mail for everything the paper did or didn’t do.

“Colonel Reb” had been gone for the better part of a decade, save for the bottomless mass of college merchandise where his ghost was slapped on just about anything fans might buy. That brand message was mixed, at best: Ole Miss was smart enough to remove the mascot from the sidelines, but not committed enough to that reasoning to let go of Colonel Reb’s branding power.

Giving students the power to change that was met with outspoken opposition from fans and alumni who believed either Colonel Reb should be reinstated or there should be no mascot at all.

Not long after a few of these groups launched bitter campaigns through small-town advertising and local rallies protesting Colonel Reb’s final burial, a group of clever honors college students developed a parody campaign endorsing Admiral Ackbar for mascot, which pushed the campus controversy into the national spotlight in the most lighthearted, these-guys-can’t-be-serious way possible.

It was silly. It was ridiculous. And, of course, it was all a joke. No one involved with the Ackbar campaign pursued it thinking it would result in a Star Wars character represent an SEC university. But the point of that silly, ridiculous, college-people-doing-college-things pursuit goes deeper than most realize in that it gave students something to rally around that wasn’t entangled in decades of racial contention.

It finally was OK to laugh about this, foolish as it might have seemed to everyone else. It was finally OK to acknowledge that a nearly decade-long battle over Colonel Reb’s removal was really a battle over a cartoon, which is utterly ridiculous.

Even ESPN found it somewhat amusing, prompting them to send a crew to Oxford to shoot a commercial with real students explaining how the whole thing played out (full disclosure: I may or may not have made a super-awkward appearance in said video).

Sure, there were plenty of students and alumni who called the Ackbar buzz an “embarrassment” to the university. Didn’t the student body understand the embattled history of the mascot? >Didn’t they take this seriously?

No. No, they didn’t.

And that was the point.

That year was pivotal for both the student body and university leadership in deciding what they did and didn’t want to be affiliated with moving forward. The majority they were tired of fighting battles over perception at a university that needed to deal with reality.

And in the end, the Ackbar campaign wasn’t an embarrassment.

It was a statement, and a powerful one, that a significant number of students, faculty and alumni would much rather be mocked for worshipping a Star Wars character than a mascot rooted in Old South imagery and reminders of a past Mississippi must learn to leave behind.

(You can follow Alex McDaniel on Twitter @AlexMcDaniel)

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