A recent National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) ruling banning the use of Native American images and nicknames by sports teams during postseason tournaments is being hailed as a victory in the effort to remove such imagery from sports entirely.
At least 18 schools are affected by the new policy, including Florida State (Seminoles), the University of Illinois (Fighting Illini) and Southeastern Oklahoma State University (Savages).
Under the policy, any school with "hostile or abusive" nicknames will be barred from hosting future NCAA postseason tournaments. Schools already selected to host a future tournament will be required to cover any offensive logos. The rule applies to uniforms, clothing and logos in addition to mascots.
"All schools should respect their diverse communities," Center president Richard Cohen said. "It's terribly insensitive to continue using a demeaning symbol in the name of tradition."
The debate over school mascots is one in which the Center has actively engaged. In a 2000 letter to the board of trustees at the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign, Cohen cautioned board members "the consistent use of racial stereotypes and caricatures violates both Titles II and VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964."
The letter also asked the University to retire the Chief Illiniwek mascot so that students, alumni and faculty "can celebrate the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign's successes in the classroom, on the basketball court, and on the football field with pride and honor."
The Center's work to remove the Chief Illiniwek mascot, which included a media campaign, was one of a number of such efforts. Local and national groups, along with school faculty, have also repeatedly and consistently pressured the school to remove the mascot.
In March, the Illinois Native American Bar Association filed suit against the school's board of trustees, seeking a court order to prohibit the use of Chief Illiniwek as a sports mascot.
Often, those seeking an end to the use of the Chief Illiniwek mascot found themselves the target of racial discrimination. In March 2004, after an NAACP sponsored protest, several African-American students were told "If you don't like it here, go back to Africa." A month earlier, Native American students were refused entry into an "Honor the Chief" celebration after being sold tickets to attend the event.
Citing these incidents, Center outreach associate Brandon Wilson sent a letter to NCAA President Myles Brand in July 2004 urging the NCAA to discourage the use of all racist mascots. Shortly thereafter, Brand announced the formation of an NCAA committee to research the use of Native American mascots at member schools. The committee's work led to last week's ruling.
The NCAA's decision was met with mixed reaction from both universities like Illinois and Florida State and Native American groups.
Florida State University President T.K. Wetherell has promised to sue the NCAA, saying he is "stunned at the complete lack of appreciation for cultural diversity shown by the NCAA's executive committee."
Wetherell will have support from an unlikely source: the Seminole Tribe of Florida Council and one of its representatives, Max B. Osceola Jr. The group has formally endorsed the University's use of the Seminole mascot, and Osceola has criticized the "non-natives" of the NCAA for "telling Natives what's good for them or how they should use their name."
Elsewhere, the NCAA's decision was applauded.
"[The NCAA's] message is significant," said University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign professor Stephen Kaufman, who has spoken out previously against his school's mascot.
"The NCAA is saying these schools are not worthy of holding major postseason championships in the NCAA's name."