SPORTS: NCAA not shy about taking on hot-button issues

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The Indianapolisbased NCAA can be-and usually is-accused of a lot of things.

Sticking its big, bureaucratic head in the sand is not one of them, at least not any longer.

Say what you will about the organization under the leadership of Myles Brand since he came on board as president 2-1/2 years ago, but he has seen to it that wishy-washy is a term best left at the Laundromat.

Academic reform and accountability, student-athlete welfare, a streamlined legislative process, rules reform, commercialism, the campus athletic arms race, Title IX, diversity, the viability of Olympic sports, recruiting abuses, gambling-why, you’d have to be a three-handed dry cleaner to have your fingers on more hot buttons.

All those storms in sight, yet the captain on the bridge keeps shouting, “Stay the course and full steam ahead.”

Now, whether the NCAA can ever change the long-standing, media-fed public perception that it exploits young people in order to protect and advance its own cause-namely, the making of gobs of money and the enforcement of heavy-handed, oft-nonsensical rules-is an open question.

It isn’t likely to happen anytime soon. The NCAA, regardless of its agenda, will continue to be a favorite target of the press, fans, alumni, boosters and even its own constituencies, particularly coaches.

It’s also a favorite punching bag for lawyers. Yet another prime example is the recently settled antitrust lawsuit in which the National Invitation Tournament was after the NCAA for making teams of its member institutions accept an NCAA Tournament bid rather than play in the NIT.

My old pal Bob Knight testified on behalf of the plaintiffs, ridiculing the NCAA (no hidden agenda there, eh?) and extolling the virtues of NIT participation.

Gee, you wonder why he didn’t send the ’76 Hoosiers there.

Anyway, nothing the NCAA has done in recent memory seems to have stirred the hornet’s nest of public opinion more than its decree Aug. 5 that it will ban “hostile and offensive” mascots portraying American Indians from NCAA championships.

Not the teams, mind you. Just the mascots and their images on uniforms.

Both locally and nationally, the edict has made for talk-show and opinion page fodder that, to this point, has an ongoing shelf life.

Whether you agree or disagree with the NCAA’s policy-which came from its management council, a group of presidents representing the member institutions-what I find valuable is the debate. It is a classic case of there being light where there’s heat.

At all levels of sport, the use of Indian imagery has been a long-standing practice-from the degrading use of “Redskins” for the NFL team representing our nation’s capital to the silly Chief Wahoo caricature employed by the Cleveland Indians, to the infamous Tomahawk Chop and drumbeat used by the Atlanta Braves.

No other culture or race is so defamed, yet we accept it with nonchalance-the same nonchalance once encountered by blacks, Hispanics and Asians.

Critics are saying this is yet another case of political correctness run amok and that the NCAA is climbing a slippery slope with Teflon-coated hiking boots. Where does it end?

Proponents, including some American Indians, are saying the NCAA didn’t go far enough. The Seminoles of Florida State-including the school’s president, who is threatening legal action-are outraged that the NCAA would try to dictate to them. Some Seminoles in Oklahoma, descendants of the survivors of the Trail of Tears, are wondering, “What has taken you so long?”

I would like to see other sports organizations-including the NFL and Major League Baseball-have enough gumption to take the issue on. Perhaps high school sports organizations, including the locally based National Federation of High School Associations, the IHSAA or even local school boards might want to weigh in on potentially offensive nicknames and mascots.

I’ll be honest. For years, I didn’t give much thought to that fabled gymnasium called the Anderson Wigwam. Perhaps I should have. Perhaps we all should have.

The easiest thing to do is ignore that there’s an issue. Ignorance is how we got to this point, just like we used to ignore the absence of women in the voting booth or blacks at certain water fountains.

In the evolution of society, someone has to have the courage to take the lead and say it’s time-past time-to right a wrong.

Benner is a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly.To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send email to

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