COLUMN: Long Beach State jumps the Shark(s)

It sometimes feels like there is an unwritten rule at Long Beach State that every time the university takes two steps forward, it is bound to take between 1.9 and 2.1 steps back. That’s exactly what happened over a seven day span early in May, when a celebration of a historic championship gave way to hundreds of alumni, fans and student-athletes wringing their hands online over a sloppy, rushed announcement about the school’s new mascot, a rollout so flawed that it forced the school to silently revise its own press release.

First, on Saturday, there was the party to end all parties in the Walter Pyramid. The men’s volleyball team won its second consecutive NCAA championship on May 4, becoming the first team in school history to win back-to-back NCAA titles—and on their home court, no less. If there was ever a week to look forward to for Long Beach State athletic director Andy Fee, this was it.

Sure enough, Fee got to spend a few days retweeting well-wishers, designing NCAA championship rings with his volleyball coaches and players, and attending banquets in the Pyramid.

Then came Friday.

The school had been holding an Associated Students Inc. vote to decide a new mascot that week. The athletic department had been actively campaigning for the “no mascot” option, which would have left “Beach” as the rallying cry for all things Long Beach State, which has been the case since the school unofficially began phasing out Prospector Pete and “49ers” a few years ago. The student body voted for “Sharks” as the school’s new mascot and university leaders agreed with the ASI on Friday, May 10. All that remained was to take the weekend to put together a press release about the new mascot.

Now, from the beginning, Fee has stressed the distinction between a school mascot and a nickname, a difference lost on even fairly dedicated sports fans. From his perspective, the nickname of the school—the Beach, as in the Beach basketball team—was never going to change. What was being voted on was the mascot. There are precedents for this in college sports, perhaps the most famous being Alabama, which is called the Crimson Tide but whose mascot is an elephant.

From Fee’s perspective, the change following the vote was never going to be that major, even if the students picked the Sharks over no mascot, and he’s said several times since the announcement that the only change on gamedays will be that there’s a man or woman running around in a shark costume. (Of course, anyone who’s been to a Beach volleyball match, knows that already happens.)

But here’s where things went a couple steps backward. Instead of a well-put-together press release on Monday, leading to a nice and shiny rollout and plenty of good publicity for the school and athletic program still basking in an NCAA title, bad stuff happened. And it happened quickly.

According to reporting from Daily 49er editor-in-chief Kat Schuster, one of the students involved in ASI government posted the election results to social media Friday afternoon. Although the post was deleted, the shark was out of the bag and the university decided to quickly put together a press release to send out a little after 5 p.m., Friday.

That press release would end up being the root of most of the frustration and fury from fans over the next week and a half. The school tweeted out a message that read: “Students select ‘Sharks’ as new mascot,” with a graphic that read “School of Sharks.”

The linked press release went out to TV stations, the L.A. Times, all Long Beach media and plenty of others, as well as being posted to csulb.edu. Its headline read “Sharks Announced as New Mascot of Long Beach State,” and the release includes the word “Sharks” three times, and ends with a paragraph that strongly suggests the school’s sports teams would be going by that mascot name beginning in 2020: “The university’s intercollegiate athletics program will continue to use ‘Beach Athletics’ during the coming planning year…”

There was no mention of the Dirtbags, the extremely popular name affixed to the baseball team, and its fate. This was the cause of an enormous amount of outrage from baseball fans who believed the team’s name would be changing. Because the release said the athletic department will use “Beach Athletics” during the coming planning year while the new mascot is designed, many had the impression that the school’s sports teams would be changing their names next year after that design was complete.

The news spread like wildfire on social media, with TV stations picking up the story and alums across the city expressing shock and outrage. Long Beach State alum and CIF-SS commissioner Rob Wigod commented on the school’s Facebook post, summing up the feelings of many: “My mother graduated from Long Beach State, as did I. Both of us have always been very proud of that. Not anymore. A sad day for our university.”

More than 600 comments were left on the post, nearly all of them angry. Former LBSU athletes expressed their frustration, including Olympian Tayyiba Haneef-Park. “This does nothing to clear up the confusion and naming that’s amassed over the past ten years,” she said in a Facebook comment on the562.org’s story.

Highlighting how quickly the university’s goodwill around the national championship had been turned into anger over the mascot change was the fact that more people commented and shared the school’s Sharks post than they did the story about the national title.

What frustrated Fee and others in the athletic department that night was that they didn’t feel the release was accurate. The school wasn’t switching to “Sharks,” it was just going to have a person in a shark suit dancing with the cheerleaders.

Within a few days, a new release had been posted on the school’s website in place of the one that was originally sent out. The headline had been changed from “Sharks Announced as New Mascot of Long Beach State” to “Students Select the Shark as New Mascot.” The three instances where the original press release had read “sharks” were changed to “the shark,” and the last paragraph was rewritten completely to no longer suggest that “Beach” was only around for one more year. The Dirtbags were specifically included as well.

The graphic posted online reading “School of Sharks” still remains as does the tweet and Facebook post saying the students had selected the “Sharks” as the school’s new mascot, although the school now says that is incorrect. The bit.ly link the school used to post the release highlights the contradiction, as bit.ly says the story that’s linked is “Students Select Sharks As New Mascot,” while clicking it directs readers to “Students Select The Shark As New Mascot.”

While this may appear to just be a terrible job of messaging—which it is—the root of the problem is deeper than that. The new press release is not in line with what students actually voted for. Multiple LBSU athletes sent us screenshots of the electronic ballot they’d used to vote, which read “Sharks” and “Stingrays.” One of those student-athletes (who requested anonymity because they hadn’t been authorized to speak on the issue by the school) said their classmates were absolutely under the impression they were voting to change what the school’s sports teams would be called.

One thing that’s hopefully clear at this point: No major changes will actually be happening, despite the university’s initial assertion that they would. The school will be “Beach Athletics” with a shark running around in a costume. That’s it.

A separate issue is that the university had not made it clear to the greater community is that it had not been using “49ers” for the last few years, witness the amount of vitriol that came from people discovering that fact at the same time they found out about the Shark/Sharks change.

Another thing is the school needs to find a way to cut through the confusion, or at least stop adding to it. A university that goes by both CSULB and Long Beach State and whose teams are called either the Beach, the 49ers, or Dirtbags by its fans cannot afford to haphazardly throw the Shark/Sharks into that mix without being clear about what they’re doing.

Longtime coaches and employees of the athletic department have often joked with us that when the school does something well, they say it was a move by Long Beach State. When something gets screwed up, they say it was a “Cal State Long Beach” move. Within one week, the community got a taste of both—a national title for Long Beach State soon followed by a major messaging mistake by Cal State Long Beach.

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Mike and JJ go together like mac and cheese: they’re best friends, business partners and Long Beach sports experts. They’ve been working together for over a decade covering Long Beach local sports and now run the562.org, a community-funded nonprofit media outlet.
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