Members of the Little People of America on Wednesday delivered petitions to Freeburg Community High School, asking it to change its nickname from the “Midgets.”
Superintendent Andrew Lehman said he will present the petitions to the school board next week at its regularly scheduled meeting. He added it would be up to the school board on whether to move forward. Any change would require altering uniforms and signage around the school.
“It will go to the board for them to consider ... and what they believe is appropriate,” Lehman said.
Attendees of the National Conference of Little People of America being held in St. Louis started a drive to change the nickname of the high school because they find its name offensive.
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“I appreciate their concern,” Lehman said. “I know the idea of something being offensive is a subjective concept. Things that are offensive to one group may not be offensive to other people.”
In some towns, the high school becomes the flagship of an area, Lehman said, and the mascot is part of the local tradition. Students, parents and alumni take pride in the activities at the school, Lehman said.
“It’s an important time in a person’s life and something they remember for the rest of their life,” he said.
The Little People of America started an on-line petition that demands that Freeburg Community High School drop the name “Midgets” from its athletic teams. So far more than 3,800 people have signed the online petition.
Gary Arnold, president of the Little People of America, called the nickname “derogatory, objectifying and dehumanizing.”
“The word was first coined in reference to people of short stature who were on public display for curiosity and sport, and the word evolved into a negative connotation,” the petition states about objections to the Midgets name. “While the term is not intended to do harm, any word that creates a hostile and unwelcoming environment with any potential student has no place as a school mascot.”
People in town support having the name, including 4-foot-10-inch Bernice Lingafelter, whose two daughters graduated from Freeburg High School.
“I know my girls and I did not have a problem with it and it’s been that way (for a long time),” Lingafelter said Wednesday. “Why change it now? It wasn’t a problem before.”
Annette Hoffarthhas lived in Freeburg her entire life and graduated from the high school.
“I’ve always liked the looks of the (mascot), I never was crazy about the Midget name only because it doesn’t connotate much strength of a sports team,” Hoffarth said. “But it never bothered me otherwise.”
Keegan Baxmeyer will be a senior runningback and outside linebacker at Freeburg this season. He’s also a potential Division I baseball recruit as a hard-hitting catcher.
“No one’s ever taken this as something that’s been offensive, it was given to us as a nickname before we all came along,” Baxmeyer said. “We’ve always carried it with pride. I think it kind of makes us stand out a little more, makes us feel like we’ve got something to prove.”
The midget nickname was given to its basketball team in the 1930s by a newspaper reporter. According to local legend, the moniker was placed on the Freeburg athletes who were successful on the court despite the fact that they weren’t very tall.
Baxmeyer wears a lot of Freeburg Midgets athletic gear, so when he’s out and about the questions invariable come up.
“People are always surprised,” he said. “Everywhere I go I’m wearing something with Freeburg and someone always asks how we can be called that. I don’t know one kid in our school that would rather have any other nickname than the Midgets.”
When he coached the Freeburg football team from 1995-98, former Midgets coach Dave Bone recalled the program using “Blue Rage” as an unofficial team nickname instead of Midgets.
“During my time as head coach, the term Freeburg ‘Blue Rage’ was still just an unofficial term for the football team,” Bone said. “It started before I got there because I can remember one of the first 7-on-7 tournaments we played in all the kids were saying ‘Let’s go Blue Rage.’”
Supporters of keeping the nickname have started a competing on-line petition to express their position on the nickname. That petition in favor of the nickname already has more than 1,400 supporters.
“Freeburg is not a place of hate, and as Americans we have the right to use the Midgets as a mascot because it is the foundation of what it meant to come from Freeburg,” the petition in favor of the nickname states.
A Facebook page entitled “Save The Freeburg Midget” already had nearly 450 “likes” by Wednesday afternoon.
Dan Allen, of Smithton, has two children who graduated from Freeburg High School. He added they still will wear their Midget apparel. “No one seems to be offended by that.”
Allen said he thinks the mascot should stay.
“For 20, 30, 40 years, it hasn’t offended somebody, now all of a sudden it’s a problem, I think it’s ridiculous … to even think about changing it.”
At sporting events, every team has a mascot, Allen said.
“It’s not that I like the mascot; the mascot itself is immaterial,” Allen said. “It’s the foundation of what the school (athletic program) is built around.”
Belleville News-Democrat sportswriter Norm Sanders contributed to this article.