Is NCAA Using the Bully Pulpit -- or Bullying?

As NCAA issues final rulings on Native American mascots, at least one unhappy college threatens legal action.
May 1, 2006

Nearly nine months after the National Collegiate Athletic Association first sought to restrict colleges with “hostile” or “abusive” Native American mascots or imagery from participating in its championships, the association’s executive committee on Friday rejected appeals by several universities. In announcing that at least six institutions cannot play host to or participate in NCAA tournaments if they cling to their icons, the chairman of the NCAA panel, Walter Harrison, said flatly: “Our decision is final.”

Not so fast. At least one of the affected institutions, the University of North Dakota, said bluntly in response to the NCAA dictate that it would consider suing the association. And officials at other colleges bristled at what they said was inappropriate interference in their affairs. “The University of Illinois is disappointed by the NCAA Executive Committee’s final decision to uphold a policy that is capricious in its design and implementation,” Lawrence Eppley, chair of the Illinois Board of Trustees, said in a news release Friday. The NCAA upheld an earlier finding that Illinois’s much-debated mascot, Chief Illiniwek, is “hostile and abusive.”

How successful the institutions might be in challenging the NCAA in court or other venues is unclear. Courts have given the association fairly wide berth in setting rules for colleges that choose to belong to the group, although that has been truer with rules that were voted on directly by its member institutions, while the mascot policy was set by the association’s leaders and governing committees.

More than anything, though, the battle over Native American imagery underscores the tension that arises when a group like the NCAA ventures onto what is essentially political (or sociopolitical) terrain.

Critics who say the use of Native American mascots demeans an entire race have consistently praised the NCAA for taking the issue on. Vernon Bellecourt, president of the National Coalition on Racism in Sports and Media, told the Associated Press Friday that the NCAA's latest actions should "be a pretty strong message to these universities and colleges ... that it's time for them to change."

But others have accused the association of trying to twist the arms of its members into altering their points of view, and their behavior, on an issue that seems nominally related at best to the conduct of intercollegiate sports. Eppley, of the Illinois board, accused the NCAA of “dictating social policy for a few select member institutions” in a way that “intrudes on the University of Illinois Board of Trustees’ autonomy.”

As they have done throughout the process, NCAA leaders insisted on Friday that the association was not telling its member colleges what to do. The policy “does not mandate” that colleges must get rid of their mascots, nicknames or icons, said Harrison; it merely seeks to “maintain NCAA championships as an environment that provides an environment of respect and dignity for every participant.” In other words, Harrison said, institutions can keep their Native American mascots and nicknames on their own campuses; they just can't bring them to NCAA championships, and the NCAA won't let its championships be held at colleges that use or display such imagery.

When pressed during a telephone news conference Friday, Myles Brand, the NCAA’s president, seemed to acknowledge, at least obliquely, that the association has sought to change behavior. “We think it is important that an institution, and that includes its faculty and students, administrators and those in the community of the university, think through how they respect every person. We believe that conversation should take place on each campus, and we expect over time that institutions will reach appropriate decisions.”

Is the association seeking a certain outcome? Brand was asked. “We don’t have the authority or power to make those decisions for others,” he said. “But we do hope that rational conversations and respectful treatment and moral considerations will come into play as people make their own decisions ... and that given the opportunity to discuss it in a fair and open way, they will make the right decisions.”

“You do recall,” Brand added, "that my discipline is philosophy.”

Dueling Letters

The NCAA may not be telling its members that they must change their behavior, but it struck those affected by the policy that way. Charles Kupchella, president of the University of North Dakota, whose teams are known as the Fighting Sioux, said its officials “continue to take issue with the fact that the policy is illegitimate and that it has been applied to UND inappropriately and in an arbitrary and capricious manner. Our next step,” he said, “will be to consider legal and other options with the State Board of Higher Education and the North Dakota Attorney General.”

Officials at North Dakota had submitted a letter from a leader of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s Judicial Council saying that a majority of the tribe’s councils favored the university’s use of the name. But the NCAA said that in rejecting North Dakota’s appeal, it had leaned more heavily on a letter from the tribe’s chairman, Ron His Horse is Thunder, that said the tribe continues to want the university to stop using the Fighting Sioux name.

North Dakota is one of six colleges from the original list of 18 that the NCAA unveiled last August that remains subject to the policy on Native American imagery, which says that institutions with such imagery may not play host to NCAA championships and that their teams cannot participate in NCAA championships if team members or others display the offending names, mascots or icons. (That technically means that Illinois’s teams, for example, could participate in NCAA tournaments as long as Chief Illiniwek does not come with them, since the NCAA has cleared the university’s use of its Fighting Illini nickname, concluding that it refers to the state’s residents, not the Indian tribe with that name.)

Besides North Dakota and Illinois, the other four institutions that remain on the list, either because they never appealed it or because the NCAA rejected their pleas, are Alcorn State University (Braves), Arkansas State University (Indians), Indiana University of Pennsylvania (Indians) and  Newberry College (Indians).

Four institutions were removed from the list because they were able to persuade the NCAA that local tribes approved of the colleges’ use of their names: Central Michigan University (Chippewas), Florida State University (Seminoles), Mississippi College (Choctaws), and the University of Utah (Utes).

Five other colleges are or soon will be off the NCAA’s list because have either changed or are changing their names: Carthage College became the Red Men instead of the Redmen; Chowan College (soon to be Chowan University) is searching for a new name to replace “Braves;” the University of Louisiana at Monroe said last month that it would become the Warhawks instead of the Indians; Midwestern State University’s Indians became the Mustangs, and Southeastern Oklahoma State University’s teams are now the Savage Storm instead of the Savages.

The NCAA executive committee announced Friday that it would drop Bradley University from the list because the university, despite its “generic” Braves nickname, had “demonstrated its ability to provide an environment that is not hostile or abusive and one that is consistent with the NCAA constitution and commitment to diversity, respect and sportsmanship.” Bradley will remain on a “watch list” for five years, to “assure that circumstances do not change.”

Three other colleges, including Catawba College and McMurry University, which are both known as the Indians and have appealed their inclusion on the NCAA’s original list, and the College of William and Mary, which was left off the original list last August because it had requested more time to make the case for its “Tribe” nickname, are still being reviewed by the NCAA staff.


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