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An open letter from Philip Hutcheson

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

In a nutshell, the question was:  Are we Bisons or are we Bison?

In the three and a half years since I began as the Director of Athletics at Lipscomb University, few things have excited the conversation around Lipscomb University Athletics like the discussion over the past 100 days regarding our institution’s nickname.     

Supporters of “Bisons” pointed to the tradition and the distinctive nature of our nickname as a reason to keep it.  They noted the uniforms, the trophies, the plaques and the banners of years gone by that all had “Bisons” upon them.  They harkened back to all of the students and athletes across the years, regardless of where they came from or where they went upon graduation, that were united by their love and support for the “Bisons”.  They pointed to other athletic teams across all sports that use unique or memorable nicknames, sometimes with different spellings to enhance the distinctiveness of their brand.  And with all of that in mind, the proponents of that view passionately defended “Bisons”

Supporters of using “Bison” noted the other three universities in NCAA Division I that have the Bison as a mascot (Howard University, North Dakota State and Bucknell University) all use “Bison” when referring to one of their teams or groups.  They noted that it is not unprecedented for a school to change or alter its nickname from time to time, depending upon the circumstances of the day.  They also were sensitive to the fact that, to this point, the more commonly grammatically preferred plural of “Bison” is “Bison” (in the same way the plural of “deer” is “deer”).  And recognizing Lipscomb University as a top-flight academic institution, the grammatical part of this discussion mattered to them.

So just before Christmas, as a way to test the waters of pubic opinion, we started using “Bison” in press releases and over the PA system at our events.  We talked face-to-face, both individually and collectively, with numerous former and current students and student-athletes about it.  We solicited input from faculty, staff, coaches and fans.  We conducted an online survey.  We listened to dozens of voicemails and read volumes of emails, Facebook posts, Twitter feeds and blogs.

And for the benefit of the scholars among us, we even went so far as to contact the staff of three well-respected and widely used dictionaries – American Heritage, the Oxford English and Merriam-Webster’s – to get their interpretations.  Here is what they said:

"Because the athletes are humans, I think it's defensible if a school chooses to use the 's' form. If you're talking about the animal itself, the plural of the word is bison. There is a tradition of being able to refer to teams using normal pluralization patterns. A different set of pluralization rules can apply. I don't see anything wrong with it."  (Steve Kleinedler, Executive Editor, American Heritage Dictionary)

“According to the Oxford English Dictionary team, the plural of ‘bison’ is generally held to be unchanged (i.e. ‘bison’) but we do have evidence in the Corpus which shows ‘bisons’ has also been used as the plural form.” (Nicola Burton, Press Officer, Oxford University Press)

We have added it to our recent dictionary for learners, Merriam-Webster’s Advanced Learner’s English Dictionary, so it (Bisons) is indeed a word. The plural “s” form should be added to our other dictionaries when they undergo revision.”  (Benjamin Korzec, Associate Editor, Merriam-Webster)

So with all of the research, feedback and input behind us, I am happy to say that we always have been, and will continue to proudly be, BISONS!

Perhaps above all else, universities are a place where research and thoughtful dialog is encouraged, and I want to personally thank everyone who has taken the time to write, email, call, blog, post, tweet or talk about what has proven to be a one of the hottest topics in recent years around Lipscomb University Athletics.  I also want to thank you for your patience as we fully-explored all facets of this question in order to attempt to address the variety of viewpoints that were brought to this discussion.

As a final thought, let me encourage everyone to consider this.  Whatever position one had about our nickname, one thing is clear.  You are passionate about Lipscomb University and our athletic programs.  You took the time to write, call, blog, post or tweet as a show of your support one way or another and that interest in and passion for Lipscomb University is a critical piece of our future success. 

With that in mind, let me encourage you to take a similar amount of time to write one of the coaches of our 17 sports to encourage him or her throughout the year.  Bring that same passion to our field, courts, tracks or courses as you attend our competitions and make your voices heard for our 270 student-athletes who are encouraged by your cheers.  Post, blog, link, “Like” and tweet your support of the Bisons on a regular basis.  Encourage your family, friends, teammates and fellow alumni to join the National Bison Club and to financially support Lipscomb University Athletics.  In short, keep bringing the passion and pride we’ve felt for the past 100 days the whole year through as together we support the continued elevation of the University that means so much to us. 

Thank you again to all of the loyal supporters of Lipscomb University and GO BISONS!

Sincerely,

Philip Hutcheson
Director of Athletics
Lipscomb University