WWCOD? (What Would Chief Osceola Do?)

So I'm watching ESPNEWS on Friday night, listening with one ear as an anonymous anchorperson is reading a story about the NCAA banning "hostile or abusive" Native American nicknames from appearing in postseason tournaments. Seeing as how we at Sun Sports devote a great deal of our time and energy to a group called the Seminoles, the story captures my attention.

The anchor concludes his story by revealing that Florida State University president T.K. Wetherell is pursuing legal action against the NCAA, calling this ruling "both outrageous and insulting."

Out of nowhere, I found myself saying the following out loud: "Damn right, T.K."

This was a stunning upset in my house. When asked, I define myself as a social liberal and a fiscal conservative - like most average Americans, I suppose. Everybody should be free to do whatever the hell they want to do, but I hate paying taxes. You know the drill. My visceral reaction to this story really surprised me. So, in order to judge this fairly, I read up on the story online, making sure that I paid equal attention to every statement from both sides.

Since the NCAA does not conduct a true national championship in Division I football (a topic for another blog), this ruling means nothing to the bowl games that are so important to schools like FSU. In addition to "hostile or abusive" nicknames being removed from uniforms, Native American mascots will be banned from performing at NCAA tournament events, and starting in 2008, the cheerleaders and marching bands will also be compelled to wear uniforms that are free and clear of any and all "hostile and abusive" Native American icons.

The reaction, to quote directly from the Associated Press story: "Vernon Bellecourt, president of the National Coalition on Racism in Sports and Media and a member of the Anishinabe-Ojibwe Nation in Minnesota, approved of the ban but had hoped the NCAA would take even stronger action. 'We're not so happy about the fact that they didn't make the decision to ban the use of Indian team names and mascots,' he said."

I gave the story its due diligence. I listened to both sides. I read the statement from the Seminole Tribe of Oklahoma, which takes a far dimmer view of Florida State's relationship with the Seminole Tribe of Florida. After many deep breaths and careful consideration, calling upon my reservoir of 15-plus years of experience in sports journalism, I came to a thoughtful conclusion: Damn right, President Wetherell.

This is insane. It's not insane to view certain Native American nicknames as offensive - it's difficult to rationalize names like Savages (SE Oklahoma State), Redmen (Carthage College), or Indians (numerous schools). What's insane is that the NCAA, which is not an official United States government organization in any way, shape, or form, would have the audacity - the unmitigated gall - to make decisions on behalf of any other group without express consent or cooperation. According to their own website, the NCAA is "a voluntary organization through which the nation's colleges and universities govern their athletics programs." It is not an arbiter of taste, or ethics, or social justice. It is a body that conducts national sports tournaments. To save time, here is the NCAA's mission statement, again lifted from their own website:


Please note the passage regarding "Respect for institutional autonomy and philosophical differences." Clearly, what we have here is a philosophical difference.

Not only does Florida State University have the complete consent and cooperation of the Seminole Tribe of Florida, the Seminoles themselves have a vested interest in this ruling. Our Sun Sports sources in Tallahassee have explained to me that the Seminole Tribe has remained cooperative in essentially "licensing" the Seminole name over the years because they fear the precedent set otherwise - if the NCAA can legislate Native American names out of college athletics, the reasoning goes, the next step is the U.S. Government's removal of many of the tax breaks and autonomy currently enjoyed by those same tribes. Plus, we can safely assume that the Seminole Tribe, which pays nearly $3.5 million dollars a year in federal payroll taxes, gets a nice PR bump from seeing their name on the backs of Florida State athletes.

One thing I have learned in those fifteen years - when in doubt, follow the money. If the Seminoles are not complaining about FSU's use of their name, they must be seeing a tangible benefit. I will admit, however, that I have no idea how the Illini, Chippewa, Utes, or Sioux feel about their names being applied to football teams, nor do I have any information as to how those tribes benefit from the association with college sports.

Point being, the NCAA has missed the point.

For my Seminole bretheren out there, some bad news: the NCAA is free to do whatever it wants to do. If schools like FSU wish to compete in NCAA postseason tournaments, they have to play by the NCAA's rules. It's worth mentioning that Texas Tech basketball coach Bob Knight has attacked the NCAA over the last few days for acting as a "monopoly," a sentiment that might have been viewed as paranoid were it not for the simultaneous news regarding Native American mascots. Fact is, the NCAA IS a monopoly. It is the organization that most accredited colleges and universities bow to in order to participate in lucrative athletic competition. There are no other options, other than the NAIA or complete independence, neither of which will fill luxury boxes at Doak Campbell Stadium. The NCAA is the only game in town, and their governors are free to make judgements on anything. My argument is this: they judged poorly.

In all that I have read and heard on this story, I have yet to hear any compelling evidence that suggests that the Seminoles nickname is in any way "hostile or abusive," at least, according to the Seminole Tribe of Florida itself, which is the only group whose opinion matters in this case. If they are on board, with all due respect, it doesn't matter what the Seminoles of Oklahoma think, nor the NCAA, nor the national media, nor anyone. I'm not against removing offensive Native American nicknames from sports in this country - but I am dead-set against the NCAA, which knows little or nothing about the long history of Florida State University and the Seminole Tribe of Florida, attempting to legislate morality, particularly when the repressed group in question wants nothing to do with them, and in fact has stated publicly that they're on board.

The NCAA is doing what it believes is right. On that, I give them the benefit of the doubt. But this is insane.

President T.K. Wetherell is scheduled to appear on "Sports Talk Live" on Monday at 7pm on Sun Sports. Assuming that he is able to make his appearance, I plan to give him every opportunity to explain all of this in greater detail. Further, we are making every effort to bring in a guest from the other side of this question, be that someone from the NCAA, the National Coalition on Racism in Sports, or another Native American tribe that takes an opposing stance. I want you all to hear both sides of this issue. But I'll be honest - it will take an extremely compelling argument to sway me off of my stance, which remains pretty simple:

Damn right, T.K. Let 'em know, brother.

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