It’s a White Man’s Game: Racism, Native American Mascots, And The NCAA

By C. Richard King
Updated: October 1, 2005

NEW YORK, NY–Not since the disputed presidential election of 2000 had the leadership of Florida responded with such pronounced urgency to a social or political crisis. Talk of legal action, the convening of emergency meetings among policy makers, and the frenzied pace at which commentators expressed disbelief and disgust were not incited by the failings of public education, the debasement of civil liberties, growing economic inequities, or even the economic and ecological catastrophes associated with rising oil prices.

No, the public panic in Florida, and across the United States, resulted from a decision by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) to initiate a partial ban on the use of American Indian imagery, names, and symbols in its post-season tournaments, because it judged them “hostile and abusive” to indigenous peoples. Florida State University, along with 18 other colleges and universities (notably the University of Illinois, the University of North Dakota, and the University of Utah) would be impacted by the new policy. While many pundits and activists applauded the action as a welcome move, others deemed it to be both timid and long overdue. In the wake of the decision, unfortunately, these voices have too often been muffled, if not silenced, by defenses of the status quo and reiterations of clichés that have become well worn at best. To paraphrase: “Chief Illiniwek honors native peoples” or “If it weren’t for Osceola, I never would learned anything about, let alone been interested in, American Indians.” The intense reactions to the ban, particularly the arguments advanced in defense of the continued use of American Indian imagery in intercollegiate athletics, give me great pause.

To begin, I am troubled by the foundation of the current crisis: the policy itself. Its timing is puzzling at best. As an observer of the ongoing controversy over Native American mascots for more than a decade, I was more than a little surprised by the NCAA’s decision. Why do this now? For more than a quarter of century, Native American political leaders and organizations, as well as students and educators, have strongly criticized the continued use of American Indian imagery in sport. And to be fair, many colleges and universities (such as Marquette University) have listened to their concerns, opting to rethink, if not revise, their previous names, symbols, and rituals. Despite these few voluntary actions, however, the NCAA decision becomes even more startling given the larger context of contemporary intercollegiate athletics — a world that’s too often more concerned with media, marketing, and money than graduation rates, the welfare of student-athletes, or the paucity of coaches of color, not to mention social justice.

Don’t get me wrong, I found it more than a little heartening that the NCAA finally engaged the issue as a matter of organizational policy, recognizing (in a decidedly limited fashion) the import of power and process to the pleasures of play. The new policy, however, should not in my estimation be read as an anti-racist intervention. Quite the contrary, the so-called ban is something of a half-measure, a compromise (and compromised) position. It does little to highlight institutional racism, and refuses once more to reflect upon its own culpability. The NCAA opts to frame the problem with Native American mascots in terms of hostility and abusiveness. I would concur that such imagery hurts and terrorizes people, normalizing, if not celebrating, forms of symbolic and systematic violence, which in this instance perpetuate hundreds of years of colonization and racialization. This is not, however, what many Americans understand the new policy to be saying. As the NCAA policy makers speak about offensive attitudes and acts directed by misguided individuals at innocent victims, they reduce institutional racism to feelings, motivations, and affronts, making it an individual problem rather than a systemic one. The NCAA’s ban individualizes and psychologizes social conditions and cultural systems, encouraging a kind therapeutic anti-racism that selectively treats a predefined and overdetermined “problem,” not its historical foundations or lived manifestations. Such a framework, I would argue then, not only misconceives of the place of race and racism in the “normal” state of affairs, but also dashes efforts to undo racism.

In contrast with the NCAA’s position — a position so pervasive that it constitutes the common sense of both critics and defenders of Native American mascots — racism must not be confused with prejudice; it instead must be understood as domination. It is not simply that whites have bad attitudes or do bad things even when they mean no harm; racism refers to a system of social relations, a set of structural inequalities, cultural forms and ideological norms, all rooted in racialized conceptions and categories. Rather than an aberrant, extreme, or antiquated feature of the American experience, racism is normal, everyday, and ever-present, defining American institutions and ideologies. While we may wish to welcome the NCAA ban, we must also refuse the sincere fictions that make it possible by insisting that racism be understood as both ideological and institutional, a force field involving much more than individual intentions, ideas, or attitudes.

More troubling than the contradictions and complicities of the new policy have been the contorted positions and neocolonial commitments advanced in opposition to it. Whether voiced in institutional press releases, internet chatrooms, or opinion columns, familiar refrains of honor and intentionality pace passionate defenses, often paired with invocations of other ethnic mascots (Fighting Irish and Viking being especially popular) and indignant cries of political correctness. In addition to these more or less foundational rebuttals (that in many respects resonate well with the understandings of race and racism underpinning the NCAA’s position), proponents of the continued use of American Indian imagery in intercollegiate athletics introduce other arguments that reveal much about the shape of racial politics in the contemporary United States.

Let’s start at the top. Reflecting on the new policy, Florida Governor Jeb Bush remarked that the policy was “ridiculous,” and suggested that members of the NCAA “need[ed] to get out more often.” The republican governor asserts that this is not a serious issue; it is in fact a joke. Bush intimates those who would advocate the ban are ill-informed, cloistered, and/or overly serious, for if they were more in touch and aware, they could not possibly find symbols and names like those employed at Florida State University to be abusive or hostile. In his passing comment, Bush illuminates a key defense strategy: trivialize and dismiss critique; retain control of common sense understandings; refuse to talk about race.

When the racial significance of Native American mascots has entered the conversation, it increasingly has demarcated good and bad uses of Indian-ness. Whereas the Southeast Oklahoma State Savages obviously have ugly overtones and demand action, we are to understand that others like those at Florida State University or the University of Utah actually convey important values and traditions in a respectful, if not ennobling, fashion. A key indicator of “appropriate” imagery, as well as the misguided moralizing of the NCAA, is the support of American Indian individuals and tribes. On the one hand, opponents to the ban frequently point to dubious polls purporting to demonstrate that the majority of Native Americans approve of such mascots. The Salt Lake City Tribune even suggested that a referendum be held among the Ute to resolve the controversy at the University of Utah. On the other hand, defenders regularly invoke the special relationships that universities have with Native Americans. Florida State University routinely invokes the Seminole Tribe of Florida, while ignoring the Seminole Tribe of Oklahoma, to legitimate its rituals and symbols. Significantly, authentic Indians authorize Indian imagery, but in decidedly different ways.

The use of polls, for example, collapses democracy to the tyranny of the majority, suggesting that questions of proper action and just relations might be reduced to a popularity contest. Would we change our assessment of the African slave trade if slaves could be found who supported it? Would we condone genocide if some portion of those being cleansed spoke out in favor of it because they received political rewards or social esteem? An equally troubling set of questions emerges when one ponders when the views and values of American Indians matter. Why is this one of the few issues where they are consulted? And more, if the majority of Native Americans supported the return of the Black Hills or the payment of reparations to survivors of boarding schools, would EuroAmericans so quickly embrace their opinions?

Somewhat ironically, supporters of Native American mascots have suggested that the NCAA is silencing American Indians, refusing to recognize them as citizens and their tribes as sovereign. Again, when Indians matter is telling; they are meaningful when it is convenient for white individuals and institutions, and especially when they legitimate predominant versions of the white man’s Indian. Thus, Florida State University celebrates one Seminole tribe, while ignoring another. Similarly, the kind of power accorded to the Seminole is quite limited, if not illusory. They may grant permission, but they do not occupy a meaningful structural position that might shape the conception and implementation of educational policy or land development. They become little more than tokens and trophies for a white centered and white dominated university, intent to retain its Indian, and the immense profits and pleasures that image accords.

In fact, some of the rhetoric marshaled in defense of Native American mascots would be best described as neocolonial, reiterating the logic and legacies of conquest and empire. Florida State University Trustee Richard McFarlain offers a chilling example: “I could care less what the Seminole Tribe in Oklahoma think. They’re in Oklahoma. They got run out of here by — who was it, Andrew Jackson or somebody like that? Trail of Tears? The real Seminoles stayed here.” Note the social Darwinism here that simultaneously excuses forced removal and applauds the few strong Seminoles who survived. And here a fundamental feature of the ongoing controversy exposes itself: empire is what made the use of American Indian names and symbols generally pleasurable and possible in the United States. Despite important social changes, imperial idioms continue to center the American experience.

In fact, listening to the impassioned defense offered in support of the continued use of American Indian imagery in intercollegiate athletics, I find that much of the concern pivots around whiteness. Repeatedly taking and remaking Native America has facilitated the claiming and naming of white institutions, identities, and experiences. In this context, the key difficulty of the NCAA ban is not that it co-opts indigenous voices and values — as some would have it — or even that it challenges tradition per se, but that it reflects a policing of whiteness, particularly the privileges and possibilities to which many white Americans feel entitled. Supporters of Osceola and Chief Illiniwek, along with other countless Native American mascots, balk at policies designed to ensure cultural citizenship and justice for all, precisely because they see such measures as infringements on their lives, liberties, and pursuits of happiness. Rather than recognize unequal rights and rewards associated with a deeply racialized social world, many boosters, pundits, and administrators opt instead to embrace an increasingly common perspective on post-civil rights America: racism has receded, happily replaced with a commitment to colorblindness. At the same time, laudable goals of fairness and equality have prompted some minorities and their allies (especially those in the media and academe) to attack, criminalize, and seek to eradicate the values and virtues associated with whiteness, masculinity, and Christianity — the same values and virtues that made this country great. In a very real sense, the struggle over Native American mascots is a struggle over what it means to be American, and who gets to decide.

In the end, a set of lingering questions accompany my certain conclusions. How has the war on terror with its insistence on patriotism, its reiteration of antiquated binaries (barbarism vs. civilization, for instance), and its deep suspicions of dissent shaped public reception of the NCAA ban? What is the state of democracy in Florida and the nation as a whole, nearly five years after the electoral crisis, when public institutions of higher education like Florida State University refuse teachable moments such as this to reflect upon core concepts such as inclusion, community, dignity, and equality? How is the ongoing effort to retain Native American mascots connected to other racial projects in sport — from the language used to depict athletes of color to policies related to age limits, for instance, that seek to discipline unruly black and brown bodies? Finally, what will it take for the use of American Indian symbols and names in sports to end, and for indigenous people to be recognized as people?