When it comes to college nicknames, NCAA's money not where mouth is

August 24, 2005|By PETER SCHMUCK

WHEN THE National Collegiate Athletic Association recently took a stand against nicknames and mascots that represent - or misrepresent - Native American symbols and traditions, I had my doubts, but at least I had to give the governing body of college sports credit for trying to take the high road on a sensitive issue.

Not anymore.

I made the mistake of stopping by the NCAA Sports Store on the Internet (www.shopNCAAsports.com) yesterday and found out that the supposedly high-minded prohibition on the exploitation of American Indian culture doesn't extend to the souvenir market.

In fact, if you've got $75 burning a hole in your pocket, you can order an Illinois Fighting Illini Chief bracelet charm directly from the NCAA. Or a children's book featuring University of Illinois mascot Chief Illiniwek.

Apparently, it's offensive for that character to show his painted face at a sanctioned NCAA tournament, but it's quite all right to rake in the bucks selling souvenirs bearing his likeness on an official NCAA Web site.

This might be fine if we were only talking about merchandise from, say, Florida State, which already has won the right to retain their faux Native American athletic identities now that the NCAA has created an appeals process to weigh the wishes of the specific tribes depicted. But, of course, it doesn't stop there.

For $54.99, you can buy an Arkansas State beanbag chair with the school's logo and nickname (Indians), which I'm guessing could be construed by certain members of the original population of this country as an indication of which part of your body they can kiss first if they don't like you co-opting their heritage.

There are at least 18 schools covered by the original NCAA ruling, which did not include an outright ban of Indian nicknames, mascots and symbols, but prohibited teams from displaying them at any NCAA sanctioned tournament.

The decision was met with incredulity at Florida State, where the use of the Seminoles name and its accompanying cultural symbols has the approval of the Seminoles Indian tribe. The university first threatened a lawsuit to protect its popular trademark, but that became unnecessary yesterday when the NCAA - citing the school's long-standing relationship with the Seminoles tribe - removed it from the restricted list.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not in favor of any team name or on-field practice that intentionally demeans any group. That's one of the reasons that I can't abide the Washington Redskins, whose name is clearly a slur against Native Americans and whose performance over the past few years has offended virtually every ethnic group in the Mid-Atlantic region.

It's hard to argue that Southeastern Oklahoma State's athletic teams should be called the Savages, though the college is located near the headquarters of the Choctaw Nation, which has not embarked on any campaign to discourage the nickname. But the University of Utah long ago sought and received permission from the Ute Tribal Council to call its sports teams the "Utes."

I think the thing that bothers me the most is that the various college presidents who came to the Aug. 5 decision to discourage the use of Native American imagery felt comfortable with a one-size-fits-all solution that clearly didn't take into account the possibility that some usage of Indian symbols might be appropriate and even welcomed ... or that the blanket policy might be construed by some Native American groups as being yet another case of the dominant culture imposing its will upon them.

In fact, the policy illustrated that even the people who are supposed to be the open-minded overseers of academia are not immune to the common human urge to act first and think later.

The NCAA has been backtracking ever since and probably will end up watering down the policy to the point where it only affects the schools with the most egregious disregard for Native American culture.

In the meantime, if you're looking for a nice North Dakota "Fighting Sioux" Youth Hockey Jersey ($114.99), the NCAA has got a deal for you.

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