By Richard Lapchick
Special to Page 2

The NCAA has made many controversial decisions in its long history, but I doubt any of them caused more of a public outcry than its attempt to stop 18 schools from using "hostile and abusive" Native American names, mascots and/or imagery.

There were unhappy people on both sides of the issue. Affected colleges and universities expressed outrage that the NCAA had stepped into the fray, while proponents of an all-out ban on ethnic names and mascots thought the organization hadn't gone far enough. The NCAA began preparing for the appeals process from the moment it made the initial announcement. So far, Florida State is the only school to appeal, and the NCAA ruled in its favor on Aug. 23.

I think the NCAA, led by president Myles Brand, took a gutsy, if not perfect, stand that finally turned the issue into a national debate. On a mostly local basis, the controversy has been around since the late 1960s, but for the most part, it has been localized on the individual campuses which have refused to change their use of Native American names and mascots.

The most vocal opponent to the NCAA's recent decision is the president of Florida State, Dr. T.K. Wetherell. FSU's teams are known as the Seminoles and use Native American imagery such as Chief Osceola, who throws a burning spear into the gridiron before each home game. Dr. Wetherell called the NCAA action "outrageous and insulting." He said that FSU has a close bond and associated history with the Seminoles, and that FSU "will forever be associated with the 'unconquered' spirit of the Seminole Tribe of Florida."

Wetherell continued that the tribe had approved the use of the name and mascot, and that the NCAA's decision was motivated by "a strident minority of activists who claim to speak for all Native Americans."

I can imagine President Wetherell the first time he was confronted about the team's name and the fact that the school's students and fans rally for their teams with the Tomahawk Chop: Excuse me, but aren't you aware of my credentials as a progressive figure in American higher education? After all, FSU is one of the nation's best-known athletic and academic universities. How can something we do be considered racist, hostile or abusive?

If that had been his response, I could understand it. I was there once myself. I played for … the Redmen. My father coached the Redmen and he was affectionately called the Big Indian.

I was only good enough to play freshman basketball at St. John's, but my father worked there for 20 years as a coach and never had reason to question the nickname, the wooden Indian mascot or the student dressed in a Native American costume.

But late one evening in 1969 at Mama Leone's restaurant, everything changed. Leone's was near the old Madison Square Garden, and we went there after a game that night to have a meal. My father was a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame, and so people would often approach him to ask for an autograph or to sit down with him. On this fateful night, a man who appeared to be in his late 60s, like my father, asked if he could join us.

He started by telling my father how much he admired him as a coach and as someone who helped to integrate basketball. We smiled, until he added that these things made it especially embarrassing that my father coached a team called the Redmen and was called the Big Indian.

This man was Native American.

That was the first time we had ever thought about the implications of the Redmen name. And we began to think about the headlines on stories about the team.

• "Redmen on the warpath"

• "Redmen scalp Braves (Bradley)"

• Or "Braves scalp Redmen"

One time, the Braves even "hung the Redmen."

We began to see the bigger picture.

Here was the man who helped integrate basketball, and he was associated in the public consciousness with a team name some considered to be racially offensive. At the time, I was a fledgling civil rights activist in graduate school. Suddenly, I understood when friends asked why I would be associated with the Redmen. Thirty-five years later, it still comes up -- even though St. John's, like other universities that came to understand the implications, eventually rid itself of the Indian symbols and name.

The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) had launched a campaign earlier in the 1960s to address stereotypes found in print and other media, but it was not on many radar screens. Dartmouth College, which was originally chartered to serve Native American youth, became the first major school to change its name. It went from the "Indians" to "Big Green" in the late 1960s, while also starting a Native American academic program.

Change was slow in the 1970s. The University of Oklahoma retired "Little Red." Marquette University abandoned "Willie Wampum." Stanford University dropped its Indian mascot and became the Cardinal. Dickinson State changed from "Savages" to "Blue Hawks." And Syracuse became the "Orangemen" instead of the "Saltine Warriors."

In the 1980s, a major voice for change emerged. Charlene Teters, a Native American graduate student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, started a campaign to get rid of the university's "Chief Illiniwek" mascot. Nearly two decades later, Chief Illiniwek is still around.

Illinois is on the NCAA's list.

In educational circles, the handwriting has been on the wall for some time. The National Education Association passed a resolution denouncing the use of ethnic-related sports team mascots, symbols and nicknames. In 2001, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights called for non-Indian educational institutions to avoid the use of ethnic nicknames and mascots.

The NCAA's Minority Opportunities and Interests Committee (MOIC) concluded that "Indian mascots that promote Indian caricatures and mimic ceremonial rites do not comply with the NCAA's commitment to ethnic student welfare." The MOIC statement led to further discussions and set guidelines for change back in June. Before that, the NCAA asked each of the 33 schools that use potentially offensive names and mascots to do a self-study on their institution's position compared to the NCAA's commitment to diversity and inclusion. The NCAA wanted to know about any educational and outreach initiatives related to Native Americans.

The University of North Carolina at Pembroke, whose student body is 21 percent Native American, was the only school in that group deemed to have legitimacy for its use of the name "Braves." Another 14 of the 33 schools either removed the offensive names and imagery altogether or affirmed that their use of names like "Warriors" was unrelated to Native Americans.

That left the 18 schools targeted by the NCAA's new policy, which bans the use of Native American images and mascots by sports teams during its postseason tournaments after Feb. 1, 2006. The NCAA will not prohibit them otherwise.

The NCAA's executive committee decided the NCAA does not have the authority to ban Indian mascots at individual schools.

Committee chair Walter Harrison, the University of Hartford's president, said, "We believe hostile or abusive nicknames are troubling to us and it can't continue. We're trying to send a message, very strongly, saying that these mascots are not appropriate for NCAA championships."

Outside of NCAA championship events, Harrison said, "What each institution decides to do is really its own business."

Included among the 18 schools that have mascots, names or imagery deemed "hostile or abusive" by the NCAA are Florida State's Seminoles and Illinois' Illini.

When we met that man in Leone's back in 1969, he asked my father if he could imagine teams called the "Chicago Caucasians," the "Buffalo Blacks," or the "New Jersey Jews." That night, we tried to imagine mocking African-Americans in blackface at a game, or wearing yarmulkes to represent Jews. The St. John's student dressed as an Indian, and some of the fans in the stands regularly had war paint on their faces. Suddenly, we understood the comparisons to blackface.

Although the thought of changing tradition often is painful, the sting of racism always is painful to its victims.

There are some who say these names are meant to have a positive connotation, that to be called a "Brave" is a compliment. Usually, the people espousing that thought are whites who think they know the attitudes of the people in question. There are even some Native Americans who accept the view that the names are positive. That seems to be the case for the Seminole Tribe of Florida.

But do their spokespeople represent the beliefs of all tribal members in Florida? Of all Seminoles elsewhere in America? Of all Indians?

Obviously, it is rarely possible, or even close to possible, for one person to speak for an entire race.

The questions are these:

What is right?

What is racially damaging?

And then there are the silly references to the NCAA's next targets. The Notre Dame Leprechaun? The Dolphins?

America came close to exterminating our Native American peoples. This is a unique situation, just as boycotting sports in South Africa decades ago was unique because of apartheid.

Histories of oppression must be part of the discussion and frame the answers.

Did the NCAA make the right decision in accepting Florida State's appeal? The approval was based on FSU's support from the Seminole Tribe of Florida, along with the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma's announcement that it no longer opposes FSU's teams being called the Seminoles.

Brand characterized the effect of the NCAA's stand as "a teachable moment." He went on to say, "a major part of this effort is aimed at initiating discussion on a national basis about how Native American Indians have been characterized and, in some cases, caricatured. In that, the decision has already been successful."

Brand said that while appeals may be approved, "many individuals and tribes view such uses as disrespectful toward their customs and culture. They see a level of contempt in the same way African Americans saw blackface minstrel shows decades ago as contempt for their race. We would not think of allowing nicknames or mascots that disrespect African Americans. Surely, American Indians should be accorded the same treatment …

"Imitation, it is said, is the highest form of flattery. But when it is viewed in the eyes of those being portrayed as hostile and abusive -- no matter how well-intended -- imitation becomes the lowest form of disrespect and insult."

I agree with Brand, and hope that this "teachable moment" will lead to opportunities for more Native Americans to attend American universities. (Only 0.7 percent of our student population is Native American, and only 0.6 percent of student-athletes are Native American.) Our higher-education system also needs to offer more courses and programs on Native American history and culture so we can gain a better understanding of the past and present circumstances of our first inhabitants. And we need an investment in youth sport for Native Americans so they might obtain more college scholarships in athletics.

It is ironic that Native Americans are at the center of this controversy. I have always believed they are America's most spiritual people. They believe all the people of the Earth, no matter what the color of their skin or which god they pray to, are all within the same circle of humanity.

It is more than past time for us to return that respect.

Richard E. Lapchick is the Chair of the DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program in the College of Business Administration at the University of Central Florida. The author of 10 books, Lapchick also directs UCF's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, is the author of the annual Racial and Gender Report Card, and is the Director of the National Consortium for Academics and Sport. He has joined as a regular commentator on issues of diversity in sport.

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