Universities with Indian mascots are in a corner | NevadaAppeal.com

Universities with Indian mascots are in a corner

Barry Smith

What are the University of Illinois, University of Utah and 16 other schools whose basketball teams use Indian references in their names and mascots supposed to do now?

The NCAA banned them from its basketball tournament. Illinois is the Illini. Utah is the Utes.

As far as I can tell, showing up just as the University of Utah basketball team will disqualify them because the name of their university and the name of their state come from an Indian tribe.

Nobody intended the Utes, Illini, Indians, Choctaws or Seminoles to be “hostile” and “abusive” terms, as the NCAA described them. I think they were meant to be symbols of school spirit and athletic pride.

But what do I know? I’m just a white middle-class American male, and nobody has named a sports team after my particular ethnic background since the Atlanta Crackers, which was the minor-league baseball team in Georgia before the Braves moved there from Milwaukee in 1966.

Cracker is an ethnic slur for stupid white Southerners, although that apparently didn’t offend too many people during the 50 years or so the team existed. There was even an offshoot in the Negro League called the Black Crackers, which makes no sense at all.

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The real question, I think, is whether this was such a pressing issue that the NCAA needed to jump in with both feet. As Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida pointed out, shouldn’t the NCAA be worrying more about graduation rates of athletes?

For at least some American Indians, the NCAA’s pronouncement was a welcome acknowledgement of their frustrations.

“Still, it is cause for celebration and jubilation among the nation’s First People: A positive first step finally has been taken in support of their righteous crusade against offensive and demeaning nicknames,” wrote George Benge, a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma who writes a column for Gannett News Service

“The howls of outrage and misinformed tirades against ‘political correctness’ were to be expected from university officials. After all, they are under immense political pressure from irate boosters and season-ticket holders to defend their beloved Indian mascots,” Benge wrote.

Another writer, Paul D. Gonzales, asked in an essay almost 10 years ago whether anyone starting a new team would consider names like the New Jersey Jews, the Nebraska Negroes, the Richmond Rednecks or the Washington Redskins. “We would not think twice about how offensive these names are. Today we can admit we know better.”

Actually, the last time somebody intentionally created an ethnic controversy with its team name was about four years ago in Greeley, Colo.

An intramural basketball team at the University of Northern Colorado called itself the Fighting Whites – with a logo of a middle-class white guy – to make a point about a high-school team named the Reds. The team attracted national attention and ended up selling 18,000 T-shirts, coffee mugs and other stuff. The team donated $100,000 to the university foundation.

The intramural team, formed by an American Indian, was saying, hey, how do you like racial stereotyping? And the reaction, for the most part, was “Good point. Fair is fair.” But it begs the question of whether the university should have banned the team. Would it have allowed a team of white guys to call itself the Reds and use an Indian as its logo?

I also thought of the Stewart Braves, the team of the former Indian school at the south end of Carson City. It had a long and proud sports tradition, but I don’t know if the players or the community were offended by the name of the team.

I don’t like racial stereotyping. I don’t like hypocrisy. But if the NCAA thinks it’s going to turn bigots into socially conscious flower children by changing some sports teams names, well, grow up.

What the NCAA wants those schools to do, I guess, is come up with a name that will never offend anybody – like Badgers, Cubs, Bulls, Cardinals, Wolf Pack, Bluejays, Lions, Tigers, Wildcats, Bears ….

I just hope the folks at PETA don’t hear about it.

n Barry Smith is editor of the Nevada Appeal. Contact him at editor@nevadaappeal.com or 881-1221.