The Presidents' Forum is a periodic feature in The NCAA News that provides presidents and chancellors the opportunity to present their views on important intercollegiate athletics issues. Previous topics have included the relationship between college presidents and boards of trustees, the division affiliation aspects of NCAA membership, and how universities structure their athletics departments to facilitate presidential authority. Our topic this time is whether the NCAA should be involved in social issues in addition to its primary role of administering college sports.
By Myles Brand
National Collegiate Athletic Association
In the days after the NCAA Executive Committee made its decision concerning Native American mascots and imagery, critics proclaimed that the NCAA should stick with purely athletics matters and stay out of social affairs. I disagree.
Intercollegiate athletics is very much a part of the social fabric of this country, and the NCAA should never shy from taking public positions that reflect the Association's and higher education's core values and principles.
In the grand scheme of things, sports does not and should not rank with issues of the day such as war, natural disasters or world hunger. And yet, athletics can have a powerful influence on our culture. It can be a catalyst for social change.
Over the past half century, and in the last two decades particularly, America's interest in sports -- especially college sports -- has become deeply part of our culture. Historically, we are the only nation that so connects athletics and education. It helps make us who we are as Americans. In that context, sports has been a catalyst for social change. Rarely has it been the sole factor or even the leading factor, but it always has been part of major social change in this country.
My two sports heroes are evidence of how athletics has led social change. As a kid growing up in Brooklyn, I had the opportunity to watch Jackie Robinson play baseball. Race relations within the United States have been addressed in a number of ways, but none more powerfully than through Jackie Robinson's breaking of the color barrier in professional baseball. He played the game like few others have ever done, but he also had a significant impact on how America viewed people of color.
That moment was made part of the American fabric on a localized basis through intercollegiate athletics as teams became integrated -- particularly in regions of the country where black men and women struggled to even be admitted to the university, much less have the opportunity to participate in athletics with other student-athletes.
My second sports hero did not even make his name in sports. Birch Bayh was a United States Senator from Indiana in 1972 when he co-authored Title IX -- a critical piece of civil-rights legislation directly effecting higher education. While Title IX originally was designed to provide post-baccalaureate opportunities for women in law, medicine, business and other professions, it also applied to participation in athletics.
Title IX is the real field-of-dreams story. If you build it, they will come. Sen. Bayh understood that. If you provide athletics participation opportunities, the interest by women will grow. Title IX has led to significant social change.
In both of those cases, either immediately or over time, controversy was created. Frankly, controversy is part of social change. Changes in attitudes and behaviors don't come easily.
In the case of Jackie Robinson, the controversy was immediate and in some ways extraordinarily difficult for one man to bear. Of course, he did bear it with great courage. That alone did not change the attitudes toward race in this country, but it was part of what led to the groundbreaking civil rights measures in the 1960s. Similarly, when Title IX was first passed, it was slow in creating change, and it still is in progress, but participation and success for women in athletics today is far greater than it was 30 years ago, primarily because of this law.
So, too, has there been controversy over the Native American mascot issue. Much of the disagreement, as is the case with many public debates, is due to a lack of understanding of all the facts -- and the context in which the decision was reached.
Here are the facts: The NCAA did not ban the use of Native American nicknames and mascots. There is no authority within the NCAA to do so. That is the purview of eachinstitution. The Executive Committee did say, however, that institutions with mascots or imagery deemed hostile or abusive could not host NCAA postseason championships -- and when they participate in championships, they have to leave their mascots and imagery at home. We have since ruled that "namesake" tribes can grant permission to colleges and universities to continue to use nicknames and other Native American imagery associated with those tribes.
Those are the facts. Here is the context: From the near extinction of Native Americans starting in the Colonial age, this country has marginalized the lives of these individuals. Historically, Native Americans have been herded into reservations and kept in their place in ways we as a nation find unacceptable elsewhere in the world. To literally add insult to injury, we have stereotyped and caricatured Native Americans in ways that we would find abominably offensive when used against other minorities. Even well-intended efforts to honor Native Americans are seen by many of those within that community as hostile or abusive to their culture and customs. It is simply wrong to stereotype people for the purpose of someone's amusement.
Clearly, these issues cannot ultimately be resolved by athletics or by the NCAA alone; but by the NCAA taking the action it did after four years of careful study, it is acting as a catalyst for national discussion. That is the main point. The NCAA has helped create serious discussion, not just about Native American nicknames and imagery, but also about the important role Native Americans play in our society. Over time, the kind of social change that is necessary so that all people, including Native Americans, are treated fairly and with respect, will gain momentum. It has taken a long time to get to this point, and the action the NCAA took has helped move the discussion forward.
Is the NCAA the social conscience of intercollegiate athletics? It would be an exaggeration to answer "yes." But keep in mind that our colleges and universities are themselves the social conscience of this country, and we expect them to practice as well as preach fairness, openness and tolerance. The NCAA is a direct reflection of what goes on in our universities, restricted of course by its purview to intercollegiate athletics, but nonetheless reflective of the values of what is important in higher education. To the extent that fairness and tolerance of all people is part of the value system of higher education, so, too, should the NCAA practice those values -- and voice its position when necessary.
Within the NCAA's small purview of postseason championships, it has taken appropriate steps so that Native Americans are neither stereotyped nor caricatured. The press has both exaggerated the input the NCAA has on individual campuses, and has encouraged in fact the resistance to change. That is unfortunate. Because higher education as a whole must continue to promote fairness and tolerance on campus, so, too, must the NCAA. I would hope all campuses join in that collective effort.
The mascot issue is another example of how intercollegiate athletics rightfully plays a catalytic role in social change. Decades from now, I predict, we will look back and wonder why we ever tolerated such behaviors.
We should not underestimate the potential of athletics to contribute to social change, nor should we shy away from that responsibility.
Myles Brand is president of the NCAA.