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native arguments

by Rob Friesel

Following the comment thread over on Sampo re: the NCAA mandate on ‘Native American’ mascots (this prompted by a CNN broadcast piece and a CBS online piece).

The short version so far? The NCAA has stated that it will not conduct post-season/championship play at institutions which use what they consider to be “hostile or abusive” Native American mascots. Note that this is different from an outright ban on the usage of such names and images and that their statement underscores individual institutions rights to identify and express themselves in whatever way that they choose. Myles Brand’s August 11th letter has some nice language about respect but I think the opinion on both sides so far seems to be: “incomplete at best.”

The Sampo thread jumped quickly to the FSU thread and the question of where the moral high ground really is in this subject. Is it OK to use those names and images if done so in a respectful manner? With a benevolent relationship between the institute and the tribe/culture? Or is this an across the board thing where even that scenario is a disservice? And the “greater good” is to leave that identity behind in order to set an example to others?

There is (of course?) also the question of whether or not it’s appropriate to use any image of a human being — be it tribal, occupation, racial, or otherwise — as a school’s mascot.

I’ve stated over in that comment thread that I’m mostly interested here in the semiotic component and how:

  1. the NCAA’s choice of 18 seemed based on more word-based or semantics terms and not graphics/images
  2. the “committee vote” mentality doesn’t sit well with me either

One of the side notes to that which I did not state explicitly there was that “The 18” seems more or less arbitrary to me.

re: #1: I already summed that up in the Sampo comment thread:

…I failed to see how their [FSU’s] imagery could be characterized as caricaturizing. More so than that, I didn’t go there as a “favorite example” but more like “hey – let’s not stop there!” sort of complete-the-exploration thing. Regardless of whether the FSU-Seminole relationship is atypical, the context for usage remains the same and the question that I think is most worth exploring is one of graphics, imagery, and their semiotics.

re: “Assuming there is a tribal studies program in place […] in what cases or at what colleges do you see non-indian races being given mascot status?” – – The “Fighting Irish” […] But why stick to racial guns? We’ve got the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Boilermakers. The Rebels. The Cavaliers. […] What’s in [a] blue-collar mascot? The unfortunate(?) and perhaps paradoxical signal system that constitutes athletic mascots is the pride/respect angle and aggressive/don’t-fuck-with-us angle. (Though spelling it out in that order gives a knee-jerk “not so paradoxical”, eh?)

[…] Unfortunately, I just don’t but into the greater good argument. If we’re going to ditch the above (below?) then let’s throw the tomahawk on the Boilermakers and the Fighting Irish as well. I’d call the movement incomplete without similarly levied bans. Screw committee votes….

The shortest of short versions? “Why stop there!?” This ties in with what I see as the arbitrary nature of the decision. Not only does the NCAA make its mandated “ban” apply only to championship play — it’s only “against” squads using Native American mascots and only in the context of post-season play at the fieldhouses, stadiums, or other arena of NCAA institutions! “Major college football teams are not subject to the ban because there is no official NCAA tournament.” Talk about your all-time arbitrary decisions. It’s almost as if the NCAA decision is the penultimate weak power play to appease both sides. The gesture is in the “right direction” re: what is ethical and appropriate and yet not-so-all-ecompassing enough to have any real effect on The 18. If The 18 choose to do nothing at all. Hell, since everyone seems so quick to point out that this is about the merchandising that all these schools are doing… Well, let’s refer back to the football remark, shall we?

re: #2: The committee vote thing gets me mostly b/c of the arbitrary nature. The 18 has omissions. It’s not really a question of Who Is Using Tribal Names/Identities? Because if it was, then San Diego would be on that list. And it’s not really a question of Who Is Using POTENTIALLY Offensive Racial Names/Identities? Because then San Francisco would be on that list, too. I thought the point of putting a committee together was to be comprehensive?


And at the risk of over-simplifying things with an apparent non-sequiter: It surprises me that I haven’t once (yet) in my crawl on this subject seen anyone use the “A” word. That aren’t we trying to avoid scenarios where we equate whole groups of people with animals?

About Rob Friesel

Software engineer by day, science fiction writer by night. Author of The PhantomJS Cookbook and a short story in Please Do Not Remove. View all posts by Rob Friesel →

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