The NCAA’s Official Speech Code

By August 8, 2005

It’s been pretty big news lately that the Executive Committee of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) has banned the display of “hostile and abusive racial/ethnic/national origin mascots, nicknames or imagery” at all NCAA tournament events. Inside Higher Ed’s Doug Lederman has more on the story, which promises to be a very big issue in the upcoming academic year. The NCAA has listed eighteen colleges and universities as being “subject” to the new policy, presumably meaning that the NCAA will make a determination as to whether these schools’ use of the mascots, nicknames, or imagery is “hostile” and/or “abusive.”

As a private organization, the NCAA has a legal right to enforce a speech code upon its member universities. This does not, however, make it a good idea. For one thing, the NCAA’s semi-monopolistic grip on big-time intercollegiate sports makes any speech code the organization promulgates significantly coercive. It’s even harder, as a practical matter, for a university to leave the NCAA than it is for a student upset with a speech code at a particular institution to transfer to another school. After all, there are thousands of colleges, but only one NCAA tournament per sport. A university president is going to be in a very unenviable position if he or she has to decide whether to anger alumni and donors by eliminating a team name or anger them by no longer going to any NCAA tournaments.

Even more problematic, from a moral perspective at least, is the vagueness of the NCAA’s newly minted speech code. Among the eighteen colleges and universities in the dock are major universities such as Florida State University (Seminoles), the University of Utah (Utes), the University of Illinois (Illini), and the University of North Dakota (Fighting Sioux). Other universities have team nicknames such as the Indians, Redmen, Chocktaws, Braves, Savages, and Chippewas. So which ones of these are “hostile and abusive,” according to the NCAA?

The NCAA press release above tries to give some tips on “best practices” (which basically amount to “get rid of the Native American stuff”), but the real answer is that nobody knows what will be decreed “hostile” or “abusive.” Is, for instance, Southeastern Oklahoma State University’s “Savages” hostile and abusive to American Indians, or is it meant to convey a sense that the team will soundly defeat its opponents? Is simply naming a team after a tribe, such as “Seminoles,” hostile and abusive? How? And if not, why is it even on the list? And, of course, in the case of the Universities of Illinois and Utah, their teams are named after the same Indian tribes for which their respective states are named. Is that hostile, or just logical, considering that these are the states’ universities? Inside Higher Ed’s Lederman opines that “The NCAA’s statement suggests…that any use of a Native American name or mascot that is linked directly to Indian culture will be deemed ‘hostile and abusive.’”

Inside Higher Ed also features Florida State president T.K. Wetherell’s reaction to the decision. Wetherell points out that the Seminole Tribe of Florida has officially approved the university’s use of the Seminole name. He is understandably angry that the NCAA has nevertheless put Florida State on its blacklist. Similar reactions are likely from university presidents of other affected schools, and lawsuits are sure to result. Indeed, the NCAA expects them. Lederman quotes one NCAA official as saying, “Everyone has recourse through the courts. We think this is a very reasoned and solid approach that governs those things that we control. But we would be prepared to defend that if actions were brought against us.” In other words, if you don’t like it, sue us—the very same attitude that many individual schools take with their speech code policies.

The irony of this situation from a FIRE perspective is hard to miss. The NCAA, whose Executive Committee is made up of university administrators (presidents and chancellors), is ordering other university administrators (at the eighteen blacklisted schools) to abide by a ill-defined speech code or face a severe penalty (being locked out of NCAA tournaments). Those who dissent from the decision are expected to sue. This is no different from hundreds of FIRE cases in which students who run afoul of administrative speech restrictions are threatened with severe punishment—and are given no recourse except an appeal to the public or a lawsuit. It’s a very uncomfortable position in which to find oneself. If nothing else comes of this controversy, we can at least hope that being subjected to a vaguely defined and therefore unreasonable speech code will give college administrators some sympathy for the students they regularly torment with similar policies.