NCAA Again Examines Native American Nicknames

Schools with Native American mascots or nicknames may again find themselves in the NCAA’s crosshairs in the coming months, with possible consequences ranging from the loss of bids to host NCAA championships to an outright ban on such nicknames and mascots.

The issue has been a hot-button matter for the NCAA for some time, including a 2002 statement by the association’s Minority Interests and Opportunities Committee calling for “this tradition to be ended.”

Thirty schools with Native American nicknames or mascots, including Division I hockey schools North Dakota (the Fighting Sioux) and Merrimack (the Warriors) faced a May 1 deadline to complete a self-evaluation from the NCAA asking questions about the history and intent of their choices, according to a list provided by The NCAA says most schools have returned the surveys, while some have been granted extensions.

Among the two D-I hockey schools cited, Merrimack once featured a Native American-style logo, but dropped it in favor of a Trojanesque version in late 2003. At that time, school president Richard Santagati said that the new logo better reflected the intent of the nickname to honor dedication to overcoming obstacles, and not as a reference to Native Americans. It was not immediately clear whether this change has resolved the NCAA’s concerns, which began several years ago.

North Dakota has indicated in the past that it would retain its Fighting Sioux nickname, citing a state Board of Higher Education decision in favor of the name. That decision was rendered in late 2000 after university alumnus and benefactor Ralph Engelstad, a longtime supporter of the nickname, threatened to halt funding and construction of the school’s new hockey arena if the name were changed. The university also uses an Indian-head logo, which was designed by a Native American artist, Ben Brien.

In the past decade, Miami, a school named for the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma, saw its Board of Trustees vote in 1996 to drop the use of “Redskins” as its athletic nickname. That action came after a request from the tribe. “RedHawks” was then adopted as the school’s new nickname.

In 2001, Quinnipiac trustees followed a recommendation from administration and faculty, among other groups, to end the use of its “Braves” nickname. “Bobcats” was selected to replace the old name.

The NCAA’s highest governing body, the 17-member Executive Committee, would ultimately be required to take any action. The committee next meets in August.

It is not presently clear whether the NCAA has the authority to issue a ban on Native American nicknames; some NCAA bylaws leave nondiscrimination policies to individual schools.

What could be done — and has been done in other situations — is to impose a ban on hosting NCAA championships for violations of NCAA rules. Two states, South Carolina and Mississippi, are currently banned from hosting NCAA championships due to official uses of the Confederate “Southern Cross” battle flag or elements of it.

Many institutions which use Native American names and images in their schools’ athletic programs say that it is intended to honor the peoples in question, while some have the approval of different tribal groups. Among the most prominent athletic programs which currently use Native American nicknames are Florida State (the Seminoles) and Illinois (the Illini), whose mascot, Chief Illiniwek, did not appear during the school’s recent Final Four appearance in basketball.