The use of Indian nicknames is a long and, even though today we might find it awkward, not dishonorable American tradition. The rebellious Bostonians who hastened the cause of independence by throwing the Boston Tea Party dressed up as Indians — Mohawks, it was said — both for disguise and to appropriate vicariously the qualities of courage and resourcefulness they attributed to the Indians.
But the nicknames and the mascots have been increasingly held politically incorrect, and many schools have dropped them rather than go through the hassle of keeping them.
The NCAA, the ruling body of college athletics, is now trying to eliminate them, proscribing the 18 schools, of its 1,024 member schools, with nicknames deemed “hostile” or “abusive” from appearing in tournaments or postseason play with their logos, nicknames and mascots.
Most of the 18 schools are hardly household names, but two of them _ Florida State University (the Seminoles) and the University of Illinois (Illini) _ are and big-time box-office draws to boot.
FSU, backed by the Florida Seminole nation that understandably feels rather proprietary about the name, is threatening to sue. Illinois is none too happy either. Although the mascot, Chief Illiniwek, is indisputably Indian, the origins of the nickname “Illini” are ambiguous and its Indian associations perhaps marginal. It now refers wholly to the university’s students and alumni.
Being academics, NCAA officials managed to get themselves into awkward twists.
The San Diego State Aztecs are exempt because the NCAA couldn’t find any Aztecs to be offended and they’re a Mexican tribe anyway. (Under this ruling, if James Fenimore Cooper was right in “The Last of the Mohicans,” that nickname is safely up for grabs.)
North Carolina-Pembroke is exempt because more than 20 percent of its students are American Indians, suggesting there is an enrollment threshold that makes an Indian nickname non-hostile and non-abusive.
In the broad sweep of things, the loss of 18 team nicknames is no great loss. There are plenty of other choices. The Web site of a company that makes mascot costumes lists such categories as bears, bugs, cats, dogs, reptiles, birds, critters, ocean wildlife, farm animals and miscellaneous.
But the NCAA should be careful what it wishes. When the Indians and the Braves and the Chippewas and the Fighting Sioux are gone, so will be the memories of why _ courage, resourcefulness, endurance _ those names were chosen in the first place.
(Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)SHNS.com.)