When a UNLV fan earlier this week circulated a Photoshopped image of Rebels mascot Hey Reb leading a black New Mexico player on a leash, media outlets immediately began discussing whether the photo was racist—from Black Sports Online, who called attention to it and triggered a follow-up by the Review Journal, to the Albuquerque Journal and a blogger who doesn’t understand how Photoshop works.
The outcry over the picture (above), released just before the two teams were set to play each other, illustrates just how vulnerable universities are in an era when digital images can be easily manipulated and broadcast for all to see.
Regardless of the image’s intent—it was just good ol’ fashioned smack talk with no racial motivation, according to the original poster—some do find it racist. And that’s a blow to UNLV’s online reputation. So what’s a team or school to do in the Photoshop era when anyone is an open target?
You do what PR professionals would do in any crisis management situation, says Julian Kilker, digital media professor at UNLV. “Take control of your own image rapidly, firmly, while expressing understanding for the aggrieved parties,” Kilker says.
In this case, no one involved is officially connected to the school or team. UNLV fan Zack Peters took responsibility for the image and sent out apologetic tweets. The racial implications “didn’t even cross my mind when friends and I designed it,” he tweeted.
Peters even went on KNXT 100.5 Wednesday afternoon to talk about “the image.” “My objective was to make sure I was the one responsible for posting that picture,” Peters said on-air, adding that students will often push the line when it comes to competition.
“In the college athletics industry, you actually deal with these issues on a routine basis,” says D.J. Allen, founder of sports consulting agency Xs & Os and former communications associate for UNLV Athletics.
“The reality is we operate in a world where situations like this are going to arise at all levels of athletics. Not only do more people have the ability to design materials, but more people have the opportunity to distribute them as well,” Allen says. “That being said, the public understands this and is much less critical of an institution or franchise once it becomes clear it was not an official action.”
That last point is why this little tiff will likely blow over…until next time.
According to Robert Bellamy, who teaches Media, Politics and Sports at UNLV, the issue is about much more than sports. It’s about history, and if the school doesn’t change with the times, it will continue to face similar controversies.
“A loaded name like ‘Rebels’ with accompanying mascot is bound to lead to more such incidents in the future, whether out of design, ignorance, or misunderstanding,” says Bellamy, who discussed the image in his class Thursday.
Though UNLV has long abandoned its original mascot, a Confederate cap-wearing cartoon wolf named Beauregard—born out of a north-south rivalry with University of Nevada, Reno—Bellamy says he still sees fans flying the Confederate flag on campus in support of UNLV athletics.
“I have never worked for a school with such a loaded nickname. The majority of my students know that the name is related to some false historical view of the Confederacy, but many are willing to accept it in the name of tradition,” Bellamy says. “If the University insists on maintaining its current brand, more problems and controversies are inevitable.”