American Enterprise Online | 8.10.05
By Alan Dowd

The NCAA laid down the law late last week and announced that schools with mascots portraying Native Americans in a “hostile or abusive” manner would be barred from displaying those mascots on their uniforms during NCAA tournament play. Among the 18 schools put on notice by the NCAA were athletic powers FloridaState (Seminoles), Utah (Utes) and Illinois (Illini).

Although the NCAA’s motives were honorable—mascots and logos that mock or caricature Native Americans diminish all of us and offend many of us—not all mascots trivialize the proud traditions and history of Native Americans. For example, FloridaState has the blessing of the Seminole Tribe of Florida, which passed a resolution this spring approving the university’s use of the Seminole Indian. (FloridaState is threatening to challenge the NCAA ruling, and ArkansasState rejects the NCAA’s findings.) The University of Illinois seems to take great care to honor its mascot, Chief Illiniwek. Concerned alumni even started a society to defend the Illini mascot and educate others about the university’s mascot traditions. 

Even so, just because an alumnus is not offended when the Fighting Illini or Seminoles take the field, doesn’t mean it’s not offensive. Offensive words, like beauty, are sometimes in the eye of the beholder, as the NCAA knows from experience.

Noticeably absent from the NCAA’s list of 18 was the University of North Carolina-Pembroke, whose athletic teams are known as the Braves. Yet just three years ago, the NCAA ordered UNC-Pembroke to defend its use of the Indian Brave mascot, which an NCAA committee had deemed “racially offensive.” 

So why did the Bradley Braves make the NCAA’s hit list and the UNC-Pembroke Braves escape? After firing off its warning to UNC-Pembroke, the NCAA was embarrassed to learn that the school was founded after the Lumbee Tribe asked the North Carolina legislature to start a school for Native Americans. The school has trained thousands of Native American schoolteachers. Today, Native Americans make up more than 20 percent of the student body. As one Lumbee leader told Lisa Makson of FrontPage magazine in 2002, “the Lumbees don’t want the NCAA to meddle in this.”

But inconsistency of application is only one reason why these heavy-handed tactics (no matter how well-intentioned) are ill conceived. When organizations like the NCAA take action to address intolerance, they must take care not to become intolerant themselves. As Florida State President T.K. Wetherell observed last week, “That the NCAA would now label our close bond with the Seminole Tribe of Florida as culturally ‘hostile and abusive’ is both outrageous and insulting.”

Moreover, under the same reasoning the NCAA used to banish and bar those 18 Indian-related mascots, several other mascots could be found hostile or abusive to someone—perhaps to many thousands of someones.

Take the University of Notre Dame’s mascot—a bearded, crouching, teeth-gritting Irishman, fists up and ready to brawl. It plays on old stereotypes that Irish immigrants were mean and eager to fight. (Before taking offense, know that my grandfather went to Notre Dame; and his grandfather had the name O’Dowd when he arrived in America—from Ireland in the 1800s.)

According to NCAA President Myles Brand, “The NCAA objects to institutions using racial/ethnic/national origin references in their intercollegiate athletics programs.” But why stop at specific racial references? After all, people of several races may be offended by the Rebel mascot and what it evokes, even if unintentionally.

Then there is the issue of nicknames hostile or abusive to certain religions: Couldn’t a Catholic take offense to the use of a Friar mascot? Might Penn’s mascot offend some Quakers, especially since athletic competition often embraces the language of war? Couldn’t people of any number of faiths be offended by Blue Devils, Demon Deacons or Blue Demons? Beyond the NCAA’s purview, there are Angels and Saints and Padres. An atheist could easily find such overtly religious symbols hostile. And the religious may resent the sacred being debased.

While offense is probably the wrong word, I can imagine that many Americans are shaken or even traumatized when they hear “Miami Hurricanes” or “Iowa State Cyclones.” Last year, hurricanes killed 116 people in Florida alone. Tornadoes kill between 80 and 90 Americans every year. If words can be hostile or abusive—and they can—I would submit that these two would fit the category.

In short, if the NCAA is really concerned about stamping out all things deemed offensive, abusive or hostile, it has lots of work to do. The fact that the overwhelming majority of Irish Americans love the Notre Dame mascot, that most Christians don’t care about trivializing the Devil by painting him blue, that the Seminole Tribe of Florida supports the Florida State Seminoles, and even that three-quarters of Native Americans aren’t offended by Indian-related mascots is irrelevant.