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The NCAA has made many controversial decisions in its long history, but I doubt any of them caused more of a public outcry than its attempt to stop 18 schools from using "hostile and abusive" Native American names, mascots and/or imagery.
There were unhappy people on both sides of the issue. Affected colleges and universities expressed outrage that the NCAA had stepped into the fray, while proponents of an all-out ban on ethnic names and mascots thought the organization hadn't gone far enough. The NCAA began preparing for the appeals process from the moment it made the initial announcement. So far, Florida State is the only school to appeal, and the NCAA ruled in its favor on Aug. 23.
I think the NCAA, led by president Myles Brand, took a gutsy, if not perfect, stand that finally turned the issue into a national debate. On a mostly local basis, the controversy has been around since the late 1960s, but for the most part, it has been localized on the individual campuses which have refused to change their use of Native American names and mascots.
The most vocal opponent to the NCAA's recent decision is the president of Florida State, Dr. T.K. Wetherell. FSU's teams are known as the Seminoles and use Native American imagery such as Chief Osceola, who throws a burning spear into the gridiron before each home game. Dr. Wetherell called the NCAA action "outrageous and insulting." He said that FSU has a close bond and associated history with the Seminoles, and that FSU "will forever be associated with the 'unconquered' spirit of the Seminole Tribe of Florida."
Wetherell continued that the tribe had approved the use of the name and mascot, and that the NCAA's decision was motivated by "a strident minority of activists who claim to speak for all Native Americans."
I can imagine President Wetherell the first time he was confronted about the team's name and the fact that the school's students and fans rally for their teams with the Tomahawk Chop: Excuse me, but aren't you aware of my credentials as a progressive figure in American higher education? After all, FSU is one of the nation's best-known athletic and academic universities. How can something we do be considered racist, hostile or abusive?
If that had been his response, I could understand it. I was there once myself. I played for the Redmen. My father coached the Redmen and he was affectionately called the Big Indian.
I was only good enough to play freshman basketball at St. John's, but my father worked there for 20 years as a coach and never had reason to question the nickname, the wooden Indian mascot or the student dressed in a Native American costume.
But late one evening in 1969 at Mama Leone's restaurant, everything changed. Leone's was near the old Madison Square Garden, and we went there after a game that night to have a meal. My father was a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame, and so people would often approach him to ask for an autograph or to sit down with him. On this fateful night, a man who appeared to be in his late 60s, like my father, asked if he could join us.