Aztec debate proves best path is often in the middle

SAN DIEGO — Let’s hear it for the redemptive power of the third way. There is a lot to be said for finding a crafty solution that helps navigate a sticky situation without being sucked into the vortex of all-or-nothing.

The best answer is often found in the center. You have to respect leaders who reject the false choice between extreme positions, think outside the box and come up with a sensible alternative — even if it angers hard-liners on both sides. These are rare qualities these days, when folks on every side of every issue are encouraged to pander to the mob and no one wants to give an inch in any direction.

Which brings us to the tale of how the “Aztec” dodged extinction and lived to fight another day near the sunny beaches of Southern California.

If you come to town, look him up. You can find him at San Diego State University, which has been affiliated with the name since 1925.

Of course, this was long before the politically correct wave of institutions ditching mascots, symbols and names that some consider culturally or racially inappropriate.

Now, in a surprise move that would appear to end a divisive and emotional debate that has lasted nearly two decades and has often been racially charged, San Diego State has decided to stand up to protesters and keep the word “Aztec” as its symbol.

Notice I didn’t say “mascot.” That word is off-limits, under the accommodation. Instead, the image of an Aztec warrior will be treated only as a kind of bold and inspirational “spirit leader.” And the nickname — i.e., the “Aztecs” — will be preserved, which is just as well since the moniker appears on everything from buildings to sweatshirts to coffee cups.

It’s all about preserving dignity. What is called for is a “much more dignified and appropriate demeanor” for the Aztec, interim university President Sally Roush told The San Diego Union-Tribune.

Ironically, preserving dignity is also one of the things that protesters insist has been driving their cause since 2000. That’s when the Native American Student Alliance first raised objections about the university’s mascot, Monty Montezuma.

The school tried to do better in 2004, when it approved a more historically accurate version of the Aztec warrior in full headdress. The cartoon gave way to a cultural symbol.

In 2017, the SDSU Senate overwhelmingly passed a nonbinding vote to retire the Aztec mascot.

Then came the creation of a task force made up of faculty, students, alumni and community leaders to explore whether using the Aztec was insensitive or even racist. The task force members did their homework and looked at the issue from all sides. They even sent out 200,000 survey forms to alumni, faculty, staff, students and the community to hear their views on the subject.

According to the Union-Tribune, nearly 13,000 people replied. There was lots of support for keeping the name; some alumni threatened to stop sending checks if it was scrapped. But there were also those who opposed the name, and others in the middle who wanted to see a compromise.

In the end, the task force agreed with those who said it was time to sacrifice the Aztec. And it issued a report that said at one point: “No human should be a mascot.”

Now Roush has pretty much closed the book on the whole saga by deciding to keep the name but dump the mascot. She also decided that the words Monty and Zuma would no longer be used by the university because, she said, the word play is “very disrespectful of the emperor of the Aztec civilization.”

That’s the third way. It’s also the right decision. But I hope SDSU officials make the effort to understand what this controversy was really all about.

Here’s a hint: It’s not the Aztec. It was never the Aztec. That poor guy is the symptom of something much bigger. You think most Mexicans, or Mexican-Americans, care one way or another about this silly debate? I’ll clear it up for you: They don’t.

These sorts of cultural kerfuffles have always been about only one thing: how comfortable some students of color feel at mostly white universities. Oftentimes, they feel ignored, neglected and alienated. They feel their background is undervalued and underappreciated by others on campus, especially the administration. And so they don’t want their culture trivialized or ridiculed.

Getting rid of a mascot is easy. Getting rid of that feeling will be more difficult.