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Thoughts on the NCAA Mascot and Nickname Decision

by David Mihm | October 15th, 2005

By placing what essentially amounted to a blanket ban on Native American mascots and nicknames (at least for schools who want the same chance at winning National Championships as their peers), the NCAA overstepped its bounds as the governing body for college sports. The National Collegiate Athletic Association blatantly took a position that had nothing to do with making collegiate athletics better, but that had everything to do with letting all member schools know just who’s boss.Let’s face it: NCAA Championships are exciting events to watch, all the way from the title game for Division I Men’s Basketball to Division III Women’s Lacrosse. The skill, the energy, and the competitive desire of the participants in these games are remarkable.

But at the end of the day, these are just games. The NCAA is not a legislative body. It has limited its say, until this decision, on the political debates engaged in by its member institutions. After all, to do otherwise would be contrary to its own self-published Core Values, one of which maintains a “ Respect for institutional autonomy and philosophical differences.”

By creating its 18-member blacklist of schools with “hostile and offensive” nicknames, the NCAA ignored its own Core Value. Just who views these nicknames as “hostile” and “offensive”? The NCAA’s official release names no arbiter…was it Native Americans themselves? No; it was the NCAA Executive Committee, a cadre predominantly made up of white men.

I recognize that in a number of these 18 cases, the regional Native American tribes may indeed find the nickname or mascot used by a particular institution “hostile and offensive.” If this is the case, then the offending institution should certainly change its nickname out of human decency. In a significant number of these cases, however, the regional tribes either support the use of their name and image, or are not in internal agreement about whether this use creates a positive or negative association.

Rather than issuing a blanket ban on these schools from competing in NCAA Championships with their existing nicknames, the NCAA should be facilitating discussions between each institution’s governing body and the respective Native American tribal leaders. A number of studies and internal discussions amongst institutions and tribes were already taking place before the ban. By forcing the issue, the NCAA has created a divisive environment which is healthy for neither the institutions nor the Native American tribes.

In the environment that the NCAA has unintentionally created, if an school does decide to change its nickname, protests and demonstrations against the change will surely follow. The slogans, chants, signs, and opinions may in the end be far more hurtful to Native Americans than the current use of their tribal names and images. Had the NCAA gone about this decision with more tact, the resulting compromise or decision to change would have met with far less, and far more respectful, opposition on both sides.

In a commentary published in the New York Times, NCAA President Myles Brand himself recognizes that “the NCAA has no authority to force its member institutions to change their mascots or nicknames.” He’s right. Neither did the barons of industry at the turn of the 20 th Century have any legal basis for price enforcement by their suppliers and distributors.

But what Rockefeller, Carnegie, Morgan, and Brand (did) have is coercion. What school president or chancellor in his right mind is going to prohibit his team from playing in an NCAA event on his or her conviction that what the NCAA is doing is wrong? There’s too much school pride (and school revenue) at stake.

What allows the NCAA to get away with these kinds of decisions is that it has the strongest monopoly in our country right now (perhaps the only monopoly). Even the richest and most popular of all our professional sports leagues, the NFL, “competes” to some degree with the Arena League and the CFL.

If you think the term “monopoly” paired with the NCAA is an unwarranted reference to a capitalist behemoth, think again. College sports are big business. CBS paid the NCAA $6 Billion (with a B) for its current 11-year contract for the NCAA Tournament alone.

The NCAA knows it has a great product, and it faces no real competition from any other collegiate athletic organization. In fact, one of the last potential threats to its all-encompassing control came from the NIT, a competition to which the NCAA has now bought the rights with a tiny fraction of its profits from March Madness. No system of checks and balances is in place that limits areas in which the Association has jurisdiction.

To those who bring up the NAIA as a competitor, follow the money. I for one have never seen an NAIA event on television. The fact is that Southern Oregon is just not the same as Oregon, and St. Xavier is not the same as Xavier.

It would take a massive (and by massive I’m talking 100-school or more) exodus from Division I before the NCAA starts thinking twice about its boundaries. But that’s not going to happen, and with good reason: being a member of the NCAA enhances both a school’s athletic and academic reputation. No truly elite high school student-athlete is going to attend an NAIA or athletically unaffiliated school.

To its credit, the NCAA has backed down from its initial “no-tolerance” stance and has granted the appeals of Florida State University and the University of Utah (I would suggest the Association reimburse these schools for their legal fees and the time costs for their boards of directors with the cash from its lucrative TV deals, but I doubt this will happen). I hope that future appeals of equal merit are given the same consideration.

The fact remains, though, that this decision has very little to do with improving college sports, and has everything to do with muscle-flexing by an organization whose colossal rule book already necessitates a full-time compliance officer at its member schools.

Thanks to this decision, Native Americans who could not make themselves heard by pursuing conversations with school presidents or directors now have a voice, which is certainly a good thing. But in the end, how the NCAA went about announcing this decision may do more damage to the very people this decision itself was intended to help.

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