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What's in a Name

   by Al McMordie - 08/12/2005

The big flap this week has been the NCAA rule change wanting to force some schools to change nicknames. Simply put, there’s a new list of schools that won't be permitted to use American Indian nicknames or logos in NCAA tournaments. It’s a touchy subject bound to incite passions and differences of opinion to a wide audience. This is also a potentially sensitive subject that can best be summed up in two words: Chill out.

It’s really not that big a deal. Understand that the decision doesn’t go into effect until Feb. 1. Even then, it only affects 18 out of more than 1,000 schools, and the ruling doesn’t demand that schools change their mascots.

I think it is important to be sensitive to cultures. For example, in some cultures, the feather is an important spiritual custom, one that is highly sacred. Using an Indian drawing with feathers on a helmet or having a mascot run around the stadium in a wild feather-filled costume may seem harmless to many, but it can also be very offensive to others. If you look at movies made during the 1930s, African Americans, for the most part, were only portrayed as servants and clowns. On the vaudeville stage at the same time, comics would put blackface on during routines. While this was common at the time, it was offensive to African Americans, and, thankfully, that kind of caricature has been phased out. You wouldn’t put an Al Johnson-blackface character on the side of a football helmet – this would be highly inappropriate and offensive.

What I don’t understand about the ruling is why it is being limited to Native Americans. For instance, the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame is a reference to those of Irish heritage. Elon college's nickname is the Fighting Christians. What's the NCAA's justification for limiting its ban to those who offend Native Americans? Certainly, there are far more references to Native Americans in sports university nicknames, than to other groups. (It’s even in pro football with the Redskins and Chiefs.) But shouldn't all potentially offensive names be changed?

The bottom line is there are enough names and symbols out there to draw upon that a school can easily pick one that is non-offensive to everybody. So what’s the big deal? The name of the school is important, for sure, but changing the nickname shouldn’t be that much of a problem. Another aspect is that we can all learn from this -- about sensitivity, behavior, history and culture. So, in the name of keeping peace and not offending cultures – after all, America should be proud of its heritage as the greatest melting pot in World History -- it's far smarter in the long run to change than offend. Good luck, as always...Al McMordie.

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