For some reason, Obby Khan remembers the letter, more than anything.
It was 1998, and Simon Fraser University, from way out in B.C., was recruiting Khan out of Ottawa, his hometown.
“So I get a package the next week,” the former Blue Bomber offensive lineman recalled. “And I open it up and the first thing it says is, ‘Welcome to the Clan.’ The Clan? What the hell is this? What the hell did I get myself into? I was shocked.”
That was Khan’s introduction to a school nickname that he’d grow to become extremely proud of.
Some 22 years later, SFU, one of this country’s premier football factories, finally appears ready to listen to calls for a change.
A recent student-athlete push to rid the University of its controversial nickname has gained the ear of the people in charge.
Even though the history of the name is tied to Scottish heritage and has nothing to do with the racial divide in the U.S., the word stirs up hate.
When you consider the school competes against American colleges, it puts athletes in difficult positions.
As a player, Khan recalls seeing KKK signs and hearing racial slurs on certain road trips. Making matters worse, the Clan wore white away uniforms: pants, jerseys and helmets, all white.
College crowds were always raucous, but this had an ugly side.
“Ours was laced with a racial undertone,” Khan said.
“People would point me out. I’m a big brown guy. I had a big beard. So they would make racial slurs at me, like, ‘You can’t be playing for that team. Who the F do you think you are? You guys are the Clan. What’s a Paki doing on that team?’
“It was targeted to players of colour.”
Khan recalls discussing the issue with an African-Canadian teammate. But they shrugged it off, and just played.
After all, it didn’t happen often, and when they got back to Canada, the issue didn’t resurface.
Today, in group chats with former SFU teammates, Khan says all agree it’s time to rid athletes of that burden and get with the times.
Doug Brown went to SFU before Khan, and like his former Bomber teammate says he still gets chills hearing bagpipes, as they bring him back to college game days.
He hadn’t thought of the name controversy for years, but an opinion piece he read from a current student-athlete lobbying for change stirred up some old feelings of his own.
Brown went straight from SFU to the NFL, but unlike every other pro who wore his college history with pride, he didn’t go as a proud Clansman.
“I remembered I was packing my stuff, and I didn’t bring a single Clan T-shirt with me,” Brown said. “I was like, ‘There is no way in hell I want to have this conversation with anybody.’ It’s such a hate-filled (term). No matter how it’s spelled, when you hear the word Clan it means something different in the United States of America.
“I don’t want to be the kid from Canada who played for the Clan… if anyone asked where I played, I said SFU. Most guys thought that was San Fresno or San Francisco University – that was my saving grace.”
Brown wound up playing for the NFL’s Washington Redskins, a more blatantly racist name that, under increasing public pressure, has team owner Daniel Snyder finally agreeing to look at.
The Hall of Fame D-lineman doesn’t understand those who hang onto team nicknames like they’re sacred. If it offends, he says, get rid of it.
“Why can’t you just change it? It’s insulting to so many people,” Brown said. “I don’t know why it’s taken this long. The Clan was at least associated to mean and represent something completely different. But there’s no beating around the bush when it comes to red skin. There’s no different way to interpret it.
“The picture is right there on the helmet I have in my basement.”
Neil McKinlay, drafted by the Bombers out of SFU in 2004, had a similar rookie CFL moment to Brown’s in the NFL.
In the Winnipeg locker-room, he was asked by some Americans about his alma mater.
“That was the first place I felt really uncomfortable, trying to explain it,” McKinlay said. “When you go down (in the U.S.) sporting that name with all-white uniforms, all-white helmets and stuff – now looking back and where we are as a society… I can understand now how that looks.”
McKinlay, Brown and Khan, who’ve all stayed in Winnipeg since their playing days ended, are proud of how current student-athletes at SFU are standing up for what’s right.
They all say another name can just as easily honour the school’s heritage.
“I’m proud of the University for recognizing that, and taking into consideration where we are now,” McKinlay said. “They’re being progressive.”
Khan acknowledges it’s more than he and his teammates did, even though deep down they felt something wasn’t right.
“When I opened that letter and it said, ‘Welcome to the Clan’ – we have to break that,” Khan said. “Even though they’re not affiliated in any way, shape or form, the name is enough to associate it. That has to be broken.”
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