So, What I Hear You Saying Is—You Aren’t Offended

By August 29, 2005

The NCAA controversy surrounding the supposedly “hostile” and “abusive” Native American team names is a reflection of more than a good idea gone bad—it’s a classic case of what happens when a body of administrators enacts policies that are too vague and subjective. As noted by my colleague Robert in a previous entry, the NCAA recently issued a new policy banning usage of team names derived from any ethnic/racial/national group that could be perceived as offensive. This includes mascots, school or team nicknames, and some team imagery as well. The policy is getting all kinds of reactions, and here is another one to add to the mix.

Some schools, such as Florida State University (whose mascot is the Seminoles), have responded by appealing to the NCAA and demonstrating support from Indian tribes such as the Seminole Tribe of Florida. Inside Higher Ed reports:

NCAA officials said Florida State had persuaded them that the Seminole Tribe of Florida supported the institution’s use of the Seminole name and of some Seminole icons, including the historical Seminole leader Osceola, who is portrayed at football games by a student riding downfield on a horse with a flaming spear.

According to the same article, officials at Central Michigan University plan to follow suit and file an appeal early next week:

Steve Smith, a spokesman for Central Michigan, said the institution planned to file an appeal to keep its Chippewa nickname by early next week. He noted that the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe had issued several proclamations in the past endorsing the university’s use of the name and that “they are encouraging us to file an appeal.” Smith noted that Central Michigan had abandoned its use of an Indian head logo and of a “C” with a spear through it in 1989, to satisfy the tribe’s concern that it not use imagery that was “stereotypical” or “derogatory.”

So, let me get this straight: schools are in communication with those whom the NCAA is supposedly trying to “protect.” They are engaging in dialogue with Native American tribes and listening to what they are saying. As a result, Florida State and Central Michigan are receiving not only support for their use of ethnic/racial/national names, but actual endorsements. What some schools are hearing them say is: “I am not offended.” What is the NCAA hearing?

FIRE sees a similar problem on college campuses. Administrators develop vague and subjective policies or speech codes that prohibit and punish what they deem as “offensive” speech (see FIRE’s Spotlight for examples). In doing so, they rarely engage in dialogue with students about appropriate ways to handle being offended such as by encouraging more speech and not censorship. They ignore the voices of those who say, “Guess what? I’m not offended.” They often ignore questions as to whether their policies are in line with the First Amendment. And by doing all this they contribute to the growing “boy-who-cried-wolf” nature of political correctness that makes society leery of such efforts.

To push the point further—if the NCAA is going to punish a school because its team name offends some people and not others, maybe they will want to address a few other subjective concerns. For instance, maybe I find the cheerleaders’ short skirts and sexy dances to be offensive, or the abuse of alcohol at the games as out of control and creating a hostile environment, or that sports in general encourage violence, or that the price of food at the games is too expensive for poor people to attend, or that the music is too loud, or that the seats are too far from the field, or, or—NCAA, do you hear what I’m saying, now?

Schools: Central Michigan University Florida State University