Hue and cry over nicknames cast in several shades of gray
By BOB MOLINARO, The Virginian-Pilot
August 8, 2005
With its ban from postseason tournaments of American Indian nicknames and mascots deemed “hostile or abusive,” the NCAA has ruled that there is an important difference between the Fighting Illini and the Fighting Irish.
It’s one thing to be sensitive to the culture of Native Americans. But who speaks for the leprechauns?
And who will stand up for the College of William and Mary, America’s second-oldest university, which has been cited by the NCAA because of its nickname, the Tribe, and a logo that includes a pair of feathers?
William and Mary has been allowed an extension to investigate its problem with the NCAA. This shouldn’t be so difficult to fix once the school informs the powers that be that the concept of “tribe” is not exclusive to Indians.
Webster’s New World College Dictionary lists seven definitions for “tribe” without including the words Indian or Native American or referring to any racial or religious group.
Through biology, family and tradition, we all belong to one sort of tribe or another. Which brings us to those bothersome feathers. Again, easily resolved. Just turn the feathers into quill pens, to reflect the school’s important role in Colonial history. If that’s too retro, a pair of diplomas sticking out from the interlocking WM would help remind everyone that this is one university where the athletic tail does not wag the scholarly dog.
William and Mary, which thought it had resolved this debate by dropping its “Indians” nickname in the late 1980s, is finding the world to be an ever-more sensitive place. Nobody would accuse it or the 18 schools immediately affected by the NCAA’s ban of being callous and hostile toward Native Americans. Fans who support these nicknames aren’t racist, just a little oblivious. As we all can be.
More abusive to the Native American culture than team nicknames are mascots who wear war paint, headdresses and feathers and perform mock dances and chants. Especially if the ersatz Indian is, say, a Presbyterian from Newark, N.J.
But this is not a red or white issue. The Seminoles of Florida strongly support Florida State’s use of their name and image, whereas representatives of the Seminoles of the Southwest are offended that Florida State football crowds are fired up by a spear-wielding Indian on horseback.
Seven schools on the NCAA’s banned list are known as the Indians, three go by Braves. The Choctaws of Mississippi College are represented, as are the Fighting Sioux of North Dakota.
As hostile college monikers go, only one — the Savages of Southeastern Oklahoma State University — is in the same league with the NFL Redskins, which is a racial slur.
The NCAA means well, though you can’t help but think that there are other things more important than nicknames that could be banned from college events, such as functionally illiterate athletes and campus thugs.
Because these nicknames and mascots arrived long before political correctness, most of us rarely think about their possible impact on some people. The Fighting Illini doesn’t jolt our sensibilities the way a team named the Fighting Hispanics or Fighting Italians would.
But what about the Fighting Irish, who do not appear on any banned list? The NCAA claims to be cracking down on “hostile and abusive racial/ethnic/national origin mascots, nicknames or imagery.” Yet Notre Dame’s teams are represented by a ridiculous little man in a green suit carrying a big stick.
Apparently, the leprechaun lobby has yet to be heard from.
The following is a letter that was pointed out to me from the President of the University of North Dakota:
North Dakota Fighting Sioux - Letter to NCAA = WOW!!
An Open Letter from UND President Charles Kupchella to the NCAA
August 12, 2005
An Open Letter to the NCAA:
The quiet serenity of our beautiful campus was disturbed early August 5 by news reports that the NCAA had decided to address the Indian nickname issue. The early reports were unclear; the words mascot, nickname, and logo were used interchangeably, and the loaded words “abusive” and “hostile” were invoked without definition and without any real clear idea as to how they were being applied. We don’t have a mascot, and our logo was designed by a very well-respected American Indian artist. We couldn’t imagine that these reports would apply to us.
Later, we saw the full release. While it looked like the action taken by the NCAA was insulting, and a flagrant abuse of power, we knew that good, well-meaning people were involved in the decision and we wanted to consider our reaction carefully.
We were initially stunned by the charge “abusive” and “hostile,” and then angry. We reflected and gave it a week before drafting this response. I must admit to sinking at one point during the past week to the notion that my Association was guilty of “political correctness run amok” as suggested by some papers.
We want to file an appeal, but first we need to know the basis for your decisions. We need the answers to some questions first, in other words.
I do not wish to take up the issue, here, of any absolute or general “correctness” of using American Indian imagery. Those on both sides of the issue have long ago made up their minds, and no amount of talking over many years seems to have moved anyone from one side of the issue to the other. Suffice it to say, some choose to be insulted by the use of these terms; others are befuddled by this reaction to what they consider to be an honor. What I would like to take up here is a matter of the appropriateness and legality of the NCAA’s action. I mean to take up the issue of whether the NCAA has gone over the edge and out of bounds in the action announced on Friday.
Is it the use of Indian names, images, and/or mascots to which you are opposed? If it is all of the above, which logos, images, and mascots do you indict by your announcement? Is it only certain ones? As I said, a very respected Indian artist designed and created a logo for the University. The logo is not unlike those found on United States coins and North Dakota highway patrol cars and highway signs. So we can’t imagine that the use of this image is “abusive” or “hostile” in any sense of these words.
Is it the use of the names of tribes that you find hostile and abusive?
Not long ago I took a trip to make a proposal to establish an epidemiological program to support American Indian health throughout the Upper Great Plains. On this trip I left a state called North Dakota. (Dakota is one of the names the indigenous people of this region actually call themselves.) I flew over South Dakota, crossing the Sioux River several times, and finally landed in Sioux City, Iowa, just south of Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The airplane in which I traveled that day was called a Cheyenne.
I think you should find my confusion here understandable, since obviously if we were to call our teams “The Dakotans,” we would actually be in more direct violation of what apparently you are trying to establish as a rule, even though this is the name of our state. This situation, of course, is not unlike that faced by our sister institution in Illinois.
Is it only when some well-meaning people object to the use of the names of tribes? If so, what standard did you use to decide where the line from acceptable to “hostile” and “abusive” is crossed? We note that you exempted a school with a certain percentage of American Indian students. We have more than 400 American Indian students here. Who decided that a certain percentage was okay, but our percentage was not? Where is the line between okay and hostile/abusive?
We have two Sioux tribes based here in North Dakota. One has, in fact, objected to our use of the name, “Sioux,” applied to our sports teams. The other said it was okay, provided that we took steps to ensure that some good comes of it, in educating people and students about the cultural heritage of this region. This mix of opinions is apparently not unlike that faced by our sister institution in Florida.
Is it only about applying names to sports teams? If so, would this be extended to the use of the names of all people, or is it just American Indians? Why would you exempt the “Fighting Irish” from your consideration, for example? Or “Vikings,” which are really fighting Scandinavians, or “Warriors,” which I suppose could be described as fighting anybodies? Wouldn’t it be “discrimination on account of race” to have a policy that applies to Indians but not to Scandinavians or the Irish, or anybody else for that matter? This seems especially profound in light of a letter to me from President Brand (8/9/05) in which he, in very broad-brush fashion and inconsistent with the NCAA’s recent much narrower pronouncement, said, “we believe that mascots, nicknames or images deemed hostile or abusive in terms of race, ethnicity or national origin should not be visible at our events.” (my emphasis)
As to the flagrant abuse of power question, I want to make sure I have this straight. We’ve recently built some magnificent facilities costing well over $100 million, under rules permitting us to host championship tournaments and otherwise participate fully in NCAA sanctioned activities, in which the very architecture of the building incorporates names and images of American Indian people. Do you really expect us now to spend large amounts of money to erase what we consider to be respectful images and names of Indian people who inhabited this region in the interest of the NCAA Executive Committee?
Hostile and abusive??
Help me understand why you think “hostile and abusive” applies to us. We have more than 25 separate programs in support of American Indian students here receiving high-end university educations. Included among these is an “Indians Into Medicine” program, now 30+ years running, that has generated 20 percent of all American Indian doctors in the United States. We have a similar program in Nursing, one in Clinical Psychology, and we are about to launch an “Indians into Aviation” program in conjunction with our world-class Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences. I am very proud when I visit reservations in our state to see that a large number of the teachers, doctors, Tribal College presidents, and other leaders are graduates of the University of North Dakota.
Do you really expect us to host a tournament in which these names and images are covered in some way that would imply that we are ashamed of them?
Concerning tournaments already scheduled: Is the NCAA taking the position that it can actually unilaterally modify a contract already made? Perhaps the charge (sometimes heard) that the NCAA exhibits too much of the arrogance that comes from its status as a monopoly – apart from the question of whether it’s an effective organization – does indeed have a basis.
If the NCAA has all this power, why not use it to restore intercollegiate athletics to the ideal of sportsmanship by decoupling intercollegiate athletics from its corruption by big budgets? Why not use the power to put a halt to the out-of-control financial arms race that threatens to corrupt even higher education itself?
Yes, I know that in theory the NCAA is actually an association, and that UND is a member of it, and therefore it’s really we who are doing all of these things to ourselves, or failing to do all of these things ourselves. But is the NCAA really a democratic organization? Why did we not put these issues to a vote by all member schools??
In his USA Today essay, Myles Brand proclaimed that this is a teachable moment, suggesting that the NCAA decision is “aimed at initiating a discussion on a national basis about how American Indians have been characterized . . . .” Great idea! Let’s have the discussion – one that we should have had before this ruling was handed down, one that actually includes American Indians and puts this in the perspective of all that is important to them at this time in history. And while we are at it, why not also address the state of intercollegiate athletics – whether or not student-athletes at some schools are being exploited, and whether or not there is an out-of-control financial “arms race” threatening the integrity of higher education itself.
In considering how to appeal, we find it exasperating that we can’t tell what the basis for your initial decision was and how you singled us out in the first place. In a letter from Myles Brand to me (8/9/05) he suggests that we could, in an appeal, argue that our symbols or mascots do not create a hostile or abusive environment. But his letter also seems to suggest that as long as some think the environment is hostile, case closed.
By the way, the last time this issue was stirred up on our campus, a formal charge was made to the Office for Civil Rights that the use of our logo or nickname created a hostile environment here at the University. The Office for Civil Rights sent a half-dozen people to our campus. They fanned out across campus and after more than a week here, found no such thing. Did the Executive Committee find some things they missed, perhaps? Or does a committee in Indianapolis trump the Office for Civil Rights here, on the ground, in North Dakota?
Finally, I expect that we will file an appeal, because should we wish to take this issue to court, the courts would undoubtedly ask if we have exhausted all administrative remedies. Please send us the appropriate application forms, and give us an indication of how the appeal will be heard and when. If the timing of this appeal were such that your deadline occurs before the appeal is resolved, we would ask that the deadline be put off, otherwise we may well have to go to the expense of seeking an injunction halting the imposition of these policies until all of our questions can be answered satisfactorily.
We thank you in advance for considering our questions.
Charles E. Kupchella
Charles Kupchella is President of the University of North Dakota (UND). The University offers some 25 program in support of American Indian students, has a degree program in Indian Studies and has, and has had, dozens of cooperative programs on reservations throughout North Dakota. UND serves more than 400 American Indian students on its Grand Forks campus. The University has competed in seven NCAA National Championship games since 1999 in both Division I and Division II.