woody_zimmerman_118_2007It is always good to know that vigilant organizations of citizens are guarding the outer borders of the Realm, making certain that no errant thought or deed sneaks in to threaten us all.

No, I’m not talking about terrorism – Islamic, Presbyterian, Hindustani, or Tea Party varieties – although, in a way, a kind of terrorism is involved. In this case I refer to the campaign being run by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) to eradicate all references to Native American (a.k.a. “Indian”) tribes or persona in the mascot names and logos of college sports teams.

The NCAA has been at this for several years, and the University of North Dakota is the last holdout – primarily because the North Dakota legislature has passed a law prohibiting the university from changing the name of its mascot, The Fighting Sioux – typically pictured as a Sioux warrior in full regalia. The NCAA finds this “offensive” – no doubt with respect to both the use of the tribal name and the warlike imagery. (Unmentioned, thus far, is any suggestion that associating mere schoolyard games with the real fighting Sioux disrespects these fierce warriors of the Great Plains. But perhaps that is not far behind.)

NCAA officials have, according to reports, been “sympathetic” to the plight of the university, inasmuch as state law and NCAA policy are in conflict. But this cuts no ice with NCAA officials, who threaten “penalties” unless the school retires the mascot and logo by year-end. Those sanctions evidently include refusing to allow UND to host any postseason NCAA tournaments, and a ban on uniforms depicting the logo and nickname during postseason appearances by UND teams. The university’s application to join the Big Sky Conference, in NCAA Division I, will also be jeopardized if the name and logo are retained.

Originally, the North Dakota Board of Higher Education had agreed, in a 2007 legal settlement, to retire the prohibited name and logo by November 1, 2011. But earlier this year the state legislature passed the law requiring the university to retain the name and logo. Governor Jack Dalrymple and Rep. Al Carlson (R-Fargo), the North Dakota House's majority leader, met with NCAA President Mark Emmert last week to try to work out an agreement to keep the name and logo, but Mr. Emmert gave no ground. University officials say the change could cost the school $750,000 for uniform-modifications and associated costs.

Despite these costs, state and university officials are resigned to the change. The governor has asked the legislature to repeal the legislation in special session in November. In a recent statement, University President Robert Kelley said, “[If the change is not made] “…our athletic program will not succeed in the long run, and UND’s national reputation will suffer.”

NCAA’s policy bans “hostile” Indian nicknames, mascots and logos, unless a school receives permission from the namesake tribe (or tribes). One might naturally assume that Indian tribes are fully aligned with the policy, but one would be wrong. Instead, the only substantial opponent to ditching UND’s logo and name is the Spirit Lake Sioux tribe, which voted 67% YES, in a 2008 referendum, to approve the university’s use of the name and logo. (The Standing Rock Sioux, North Dakota’s other Sioux tribe, has never put the matter to a vote – evidently finding more pressing matters on its tribal agenda.)

Preserving a combative posture worthy of its warlike ancestors, the Spirit Lake Sioux, issued a strongly worded statement threatening “…consequences far more severe than any sanctions UND claims will exist by keeping our name.” The tribal committee criticized state and NCAA officials for failing to include tribal representatives in its deliberations, and called the NCAA policy prohibiting Indian names and figures for collegiate sports teams “racist.”

“Indeed, we have no choice but to conclude that the only time a Native American voice is heard on this matter is when it comes from the mouths of the small minority who conveniently share the views of the politically correct academic elite and the crafters of this policy,” said the statement from the tribe’s Committee for Understanding and Respect.

At this writing, we have no confirmed reports on war parties raiding NCAA headquarters, taking scalps, or stealing the university’s horses. Tribal leaders have said, “truly, the doo-doo is going to hit the fan…” (Evidently this is an authentic Indian expression. Who knew?)

OK, OK, I made that last one up. But no one could credibly make up the rest of this mess. Really, are there this many “educators” in the country with so little to do that they can spend their time strong-arming an entire state into changing its university’s mascot and logo, costing the school approximately $750,000 in education funds that certainly could find better uses elsewhere? Isn’t the NCAA all about creating athletic opportunities for college and university students? Is this the best it can do? Maybe it’s time for some “change” in its hallowed halls. (Mr. Obama, call your office!)

Not to be too tough on the NCAA, I hasten to point out that my alma mater, Wheaton College (IL), abandoned its own logo and mascot in 2000 without any prodding (or help) from the NCAA. Dating back to the early years of the last century, Wheaton’s mascot was the Crusader – an entirely appropriate symbol for a school that advocates vigorously contending for the faith and taking it to the world.

By 2000, however, alumni and students were expressing “embarrassment” over the symbol of the college’s athletic teams, replete with armor, lance and horse. One alumnus said he felt “self-conscious” wearing his Wheaton sweatshirt in front of Muslim friends who looked askance at the mounted Crusader. Others averred that Muslims consider the Crusader a symbol of violence and oppression visited on their people by Christians.

The general consensus was that this highly offensive – possibly even racist – symbol from a bygone era did not belong in the peaceful, enlightened world of the new century. And so the Crusader had to go. Numerous alumni joined the campaign to cast him into Outer Darkness. No longer would he pollute the peaceful discourse between Christians and the Religion of Peace. The Wheaton Crusaders became the Wheaton Thunder. (Waggish alumni suggested that the new sports “symbol” should be a chamber-pot.)

Mark Twain once wrote an anecdote about a bar-conversation with a man who waxed eloquent, in his flowing cups, about how we were all citizens of the world and brothers under the skin. Regional interests were passé. A few minutes after he left the bar, a raucous scuffle broke out in the street. On inquiring after the cause, Twain was told, “That was your citizen of the world. Turned out he was from Kankakee. Wouldn’t take no knockin’ the place…”

Wheaton College, the Crusader, the Religion of Peace, and the “citizen of the world” came naturally to mind after the dramatic events of just a year later. I have often wondered how those alumni who thought the Crusader so outdated felt about him after the Religion of Peace was shown to be not quite as peaceful as they thought.

Former Wheaton president Dr. V. Raymond Edman was a World War I veteran. His tenure overlapped my student days. Also a Ph. D. historian, educator and missionary, he remained extremely proud of his military service. Many of his chapel talks related his experiences in the Great War. Several of his sons served in World War II. Dr. Edman did not live to see this day. I am glad of that.

We live in strange times. May we learn from them in spite of our educators.