Schools fight back on NCAA mascot ban

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

INDIANAPOLIS -- The NCAA spent four years studying the use of American Indian nicknames. It took less than a month for the governing body to start backpedaling.

With university presidents threatening lawsuits, complaining about the rationale and openly questioning the Aug. 5 decision to ban Indian mascots, logos and nicknames from postseason tournaments, the NCAA has responded with unusual speed in making alterations.

Three schools have won appeals to be removed from the original list of 18 offenders, and more are expected. But that hasn't stopped the torrent of criticism.

"I think anything can be taken to the extreme," Central Michigan president Michael Rao said. "What I think still needs to happen, more than words, is that we need to focus on how people are treated. What's in a name? Not as much as behavior."

From student dorms to administration offices, the NCAA's unprecedented move has touched off a wave of emotions from coast to coast.

Florida State hired a high-powered attorney and threatened legal action to retain its Seminoles nickname. The University of North Dakota, home of the Fighting Sioux, suggested the NCAA breached its contract to host a national hockey tournament. Central Michigan criticized the NCAA for ignoring a long-standing agreement between the school and a local tribe permitting the use of Chippewas as its nickname.

Radio talk shows have been inundated with callers chastising the governing body for going too far in the name of political correctness.

On the other hand, some Indian leaders have taking umbrage -- saying the NCAA should have banned all uses of Indian nicknames.

"I think the reaction was a little more than what we expected," NCAA spokesman Erik Christianson said. "But I think everyone realizes this has been a contentious and controversial issue for a long time."

Rao and Florida State president T.K. Wetherell say the NCAA should have expected some consternation.

Both schools had agreements with local tribes to use their nicknames -- an argument the NCAA discounted in its initial news conference announcing the ban. Central Michigan, Florida State and the University of Utah, nicknamed the Utes, all won appeals based on those agreements.

"I spoke with the P.R. director of the tribe and they were concerned that they [NCAA] didn't talk to them," Rao said. "This is a tribe that has been highly successful. ... The decision kind of promotes the idea they need help and can't make decisions for themselves."

American Indians are divided on the issue.

Last September, the University of Pennsylvania's National Annenberg Election Survey showed 90 percent of American Indians did not find the use of "Redskins" by the NFL team offensive, while 9 percent did. The survey polled 768 American Indians in the 48 continental states.

But some want the NCAA to help abolish Indian nicknames altogether.

Vernon Bellecourt, president of the National Coalition on Racism in Sports & Media, has protested nicknames for teams ranging from the Cleveland Indians and Washington Redskins to Florida State's Seminoles. He said the NCAA's reversals have hindered efforts for broader change.

"We think the NCAA is prematurely backpedaling and we have to fault them for it," Bellecourt said. "We have to criticize them for not having open hearings and taking testimony from the Seminole tribe, not talking with the president of the National Indian Education Association."

Some university presidents are upset by what they call the NCAA's inflammatory rhetoric.

In announcing the ban, NCAA president Myles Brand said the 18 schools were deemed to have "hostile" or "abusive" images, mascots or nicknames.

North Dakota president Charles Kupchella wonders why his school was included. The school has had tribal permission to use the nickname -- a position now under review by the tribe. And the logo, Kupchella said, was designed by an American Indian.

"There's nothing disrespectful or abusive about it at all," said Kupchella, who was provost and professor of biology at Southeast Missouri State from 1993 to 1999 before taking his post at North Dakota. "We don't have tomahawk chops or mascots doing silly things. The only thing I could come up with is that some people are upset by what other schools do with the nicknames, like saying 'Sioux suck.'"

Kupchella said school policy is to remove any such derogatory banners.

Other schools are trying to determine why "Warriors" was considered OK by the NCAA while "Braves" got three schools -- Alcorn State, Bradley and Chowan College in North Carolina -- on the list. Another school, the North Carolina-Pembroke Braves, received an exemption because it had a historically high percentage of American Indian students.

Chowan and Catawba College, another North Carolina school on the list, both are named after Indian tribes. Catawba uses the moniker "Indians" but does not have a mascot. Spokeswoman Tonia Black-Gold said Catawba is considering an appeal.

"My personal feeling is that sometimes when you open a box, the things that come out are things you don't expect," she said. "I think the NCAA has, frankly, been surprised with all the outcry and uproar."

Christianson contends the complaints will not force the NCAA to back off its policy entirely. Rather, it will abide by the appeals process and fight in court, if necessary.

Kupchella, the North Dakota president, said that approach could cost his school.

The Fighting Sioux ice hockey arena, which hosts the West Regional hockey tournament in March, has nearly 3,000 Indian images built into the structure, including a 10-foot Indian sketch on the granite floor.

Kupchella said the NCAA's requirement that schools make reasonable attempts to cover all American Indian symbols or logos for postseason tournaments already awarded could cost his school substantially more than expected when North Dakota agreed to host the tournament.

"It's not justified or legal," Kupchella said.

Illinois finds itself in a different predicament.

The Illini were not actually an Indian tribe but represented a confederation of tribes. And the term "Fighting Illini" also was used as a tribute to American servicemen who fought in World War I. Spokesman Tom Hardy said the origin of the phrase referring to war veterans dates to 1921.

Illinois hasn't yet decided whether to appeal, but Hardy called the ban "counterproductive."

"I think a lot of people have looked at this process with a lot of uncertainty because institutions are distinct and autonomous and their practices are all very individual," he said. "There's a lot of gray shading on this. There's not a lot of black and white."

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