Hostile and Abusive

Inside Higher Ed reports that the NCAA has decided, after great deliberation, that William & Mary's "Tribe" athletic nickname is "hostile and abusive". You can read the NCAA press release here and the William & Mary comments here.

This is one episode in a long-running controversy, and it will strike many who haven't been paying attention to it as silly. In fact, it will strike many who have been paying attention to it as silly.

There's a website for everything. Adam Smargon maintains a long list of college nicknames here, and it's interesting to try to taxonomize.

By far the most common class of nicknames are Animals you Don't Want to Mess With: Lions, Tigers, Bears, as expected; But also Bobcats, Broncos, Bulldogs, Cobras, Cougars, Coyotes, Gators, Jaguars, Leopards, Rattlers, and Wildcats. And there are plenty of variations; in addition to just plain "Bears", there are Black Bears, Golden Bears, Polar Bears, Sugar Bears, and Grizzlies. And, of course, Bruins.

Then there are Not So Scary Animals, for colleges wanting a milder image: Anteaters, Armadillos, Badgers, Banana Slugs, Beavers (Go, Caltech Beavers!), Boll Weevils, Cardinals, Dolphins, Frogs, Gamecocks, Gophers, Great Danes, Greyhounds, Jackrabbits, Kangaroos, Larks, Owls, Penguins, Peacocks, and Roadrunners.

Once we move beyond animals, another popular theme is professions, both legitimate and il-: Anchormen, Buccaneers, Cornhuskers, Cowboys, Engineers, Explorers, Foresters, Governors, Loggers, Lumberjacks, Mariners, Miners, Monarchs, Mounties, Orediggers, Pirates, Raiders, Rangers, Senators, and Statesmen. Religion appears, too: Angels, Saints, Devils (including Blue, Red, Delta, Jersey, Sun, and Dust varieties), Demons, Missionaries, Bishops, and Deacons. And the Yeshiva Maccabees.

There's a strong whiff of militarism, both historical and current: Archers, Knights, Crusaders, Colonels, Commodores, Generals, Grenadiers, Lancers, Leathernecks, Majors, Midshipmen, Minutemen, Musketeers, and Cavaliers. Vikings, Spartans, and Trojans, of course, and just plain Warriors.

Some schools have chosen to skate right up to the edge of the ice by choosing actual ethnic group names: Celts/Celtics, Dutch/Dutchmen (Flying and not), Scots, Irish, Ragin' Cajuns, Scots, Norse.(And Oles, thanks much, St. Olaf!)

But none of those schools are in Official NCAA Trouble. It's hard to find any common theme in the above. However, what's obviously absent is (a) any sign of disrespect or malice toward the nickname referents; (b) any notable offense taken by any nicknamed group.

But all that changes for Native Americans; those nicknames are presumed "hostile and abusive"; because offense is at least pretended to be taken.

Names that will at least draw a sharp look from the NCAA include: Indians, Braves, Tribe (as William & Mary discovered), Redmen, and Savages. Specific tribes can also land you in jeopardy: Choctaws, Seminoles, Chippewas. Also, interestingly enough, the University of Utah "Utes" and the University of Illinois-Champaign "Illini" found themselves on the shitlist. (It's not clear whether the states will have to change their names too.)

A number of teams with "Warriors" and "Braves" were excused by the NCAA; as were the San Diego State Aztecs.

I doubt whether anyone is actually offended by a college team's nickname; it's hard to imagine that anyone will be helped even if every last nickname that referred directly or indirectly to Native Americans were wiped out. I guess concentrating on empty, symbolic gestures saves people from actually dealing with tough problems.