When the NCAA announced its new policy to penalize college teams for using American Indian nicknames, mascots and logos, it said the action supported the organization’s goals of diversity and inclusion.
Walter Harrison, chair of the NCAA Executive Committee and president of Hartford University, also suggested that educational considerations — not just athletics — played a role in the committee’s decision to implement the policy.
“We obviously find that these hostile or abusive mascots or nicknames are troubling to us as presidents of educational institutions,” Harrison said.
The underlying assumption is that the 18 universities using American Indian names and imagery deemed “hostile and abusive” are less diverse and, therefore, less effective educational institutions because they create an atmosphere in which Native Americans are excluded.
After all, why would minority students choose to attend a school that’s openly hostile and abusive to them when they have other choices?
If the NCAA’s premise is correct, American Indian students should be attending state universities which lack the allegedly offensive nicknames, mascots and logos in much greater numbers than those that use them. However, in the Dakotas, the exact opposite is true.
The University of North Dakota is on the NCAA’s list of offenders because it uses the “Fighting Sioux” nickname and has a logo (but no mascot) depicting a Sioux warrior. The logo was designed by American Indian artist Bennett Brien, a UND graduate. The controversy surrounding UND’s use of the Sioux name has flared off and on for more than 30 years.
North Dakota is a state in which American Indians comprise about five percent of the total population, according to the 2000 census. UND last year had 407 American Indian students (three percent) out of a total enrollment of 13,000. That’s three and a half times more than North Dakota State University (the Bison) with an enrollment of 12,000.
One might expect that in South Dakota where American Indians represent more than eight percent of the total population, the situation would be markedly different. However, UND has more than twice as many American Indian students as either South Dakota State University (the Jackrabbits) or the University of South Dakota (the Coyotes).
In two states of similar size, comparable resources and significant American Indian populations, only one university — UND — comes anywhere near having a representative number of American Indian students on its campus. This turns the NCAA’s rationale on its head.
Quite obviously, the educational opportunities a university offers are of far greater importance to American Indian students than the nicknames and logos of its athletic teams.
UND administers 25 Indian-related programs that include medicine, research, law, psychology, nursing, geology, arts and communications. UND’s Web site lists eight publications and seven student organizations, all related to American Indian students.
In addition, the Educational Leadership program at UND has generated eight tribal college presidents. The 30-year-old Indians Into Medicine (INMED) program at the UND School of Medicine and Health Sciences produces 20 percent of the nation’s American Indian physicians. These are just a sample of the real, tangible benefits that flow from UND to Native Americans throughout North Dakota and around the nation.
The NCAA is also urging its members to follow “the best practices of institutions that do not support the use of Native American mascots or imagery.” Among those “model institutions,” in the NCAA’s parlance, are the University of Iowa and the University of Wisconsin, which have policies against scheduling games with schools that use American Indian names.
Of course, neither university’s policy applies to conference opponents. Therefore, Wisconsin regularly plays two of the 18 schools that the NCAA finds objectionable: UND in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association and the University of Illinois (Fighting Illini) in the Big 10 Conference. Big 10 member Iowa also plays Illinois regularly.
And even though these two institutions have a combined enrollment five times greater than UND’s, they together educate fewer American Indian students.
What does this mean? Perhaps the NCAA’s Executive Committee would implode if someone were to suggest that a university with a more “politically correct” nickname might have less incentive and motivation to develop programs that attract and educate American Indian students in careers that benefit their tribes.
The NCAA should explain why so many American Indian students vote with their feet to attend UND in far greater numbers than “model institutions” or other universities in its region with nicknames currently in favor with the organization. Unfortunately, in the NCAA’s upside-down world, what a university says is far more important than what it does.
Patrick C. Miller is a native of Pierre, S.D., and holds a degree in journalism from South Dakota State University. He has lived in North Dakota for 28 years and works in public information at the University of North Dakota School of Medicine and Health Sciences. He serves as the North Dakota arena reporter for U.S. College Hockey Online and has covered Fighting Sioux hockey for the past four seasons.
The views expressed by Miller do not represent any official position of the University of North Dakota or the UND School of Medicine and Health Sciences.