One of my favorite pastimes at the University of Maine is attending hockey games. I grew up watching the Portland Pirates and look forward to the start of hockey season every October. Coming to a school that boosts of the atmosphere of Alfond Arena and the school spirit that surrounds UMaine hockey has always been something I’ve been happy to be a part of. That being said, there is one tradition that I have always struggled with.
At every UMaine hockey game, a stuffed referee named Bernie is dropped from the student section, hanging by a rope, and is swung back and forth to greet the referees as they skate out onto the ice. Bernie is made to look like a referee, even decked out in the classic black and white striped outfit and with a monkey’s head.
While some may view this as a long-standing tradition it’s hard for me to not look at it and feel uncomfortable about the image presented. The tradition of hanging of the referee from the student section is a hard one to find the origin of. However, UMaine posted a video back in February of 2016 which contained a student proudly stating that Bernie the referee “has been at UMaine for years and years, passed down through generations of Maniacs.”
When I look at this referee hanging from a rope and swinging back and forth, it’s hard for me to not think about our history as a country with lynching. Although the origin of these hangings comes from a law passed to use hanging as a form of capital punishment, for the majority of Americans the word lynching evokes a very different picture. The majority of lynchings in our country were committed during racially charged situations and periods of time where racial tensions, in general, were high. These hangings were used as a way to scare minorities and preserve white supremacy, especially after the end of slavery in the 1860s.
According to the National Association for Colored People (NAACP), 4,743 people were lynched between the years of 1882 and 1968. While a majority of these people (72.7 percent) were black, a wide variety of minorities were affected by the phenomenon. The Chinese Massacre of 1871 saw between 17 and 20 Chinese Americans lynched in the streets in what is widely thought of as a racially motivated attack. Likewise, Mexicans were the second-most targeted group, after African Americans, when it came to lynching. Between 1928 and 1948 there were 548 cases of Mexicans being lynched, and those are only the ones that were documented, likely leaving out a large number that went undocumented.
Those who are quick to brush this off as a piece of American history, and believe that we have moved on as a nation from this issue, need only to look back to our last president, Barack Obama, to find a wide variety of effigies hanging from a rope. Lynching continues to show up in the most racially charged moments in our country. Already this year police in Illinois had to respond to an incident in which a house had “Halloween decor” of “a black mannequin hanging from a tree with its hands and ankles tied” according to USA Today. To this day, senators are fighting to pass anti-lynching laws after over 200 failed attempts.
In the year 2018, the United States has still not been able to agree that lynching should be illegal. In our racially charged time, this is an issue that we continue to struggle with, as much as we would like to think that it’s an issue of the past, and just a dark part of our history that we wish to move on from.
So it’s time that we as a university ask ourselves if hanging a referee with a monkey, of all the animals possible, from a rope is the tradition that we want to preserve and be proud of. Is a tradition that could so easily be associated with a dark and ugly part of our culture, both past and present, how we want to exemplify what we stand for?
UMaine is a school with so many amazing opportunities to participate in and a wide variety of traditions, but it is important for us to be able to evolve as a school and be able to let go of the things that no longer fit what we stand for. So while I love the chants, the pep band and everything else that makes hockey at UMaine so special, it might be time to reconsider how we greet our referees every game.