Nailing the Nickname

Barely five months on the job and already Robert Davies is consumed by controversy.

Blame the Indians. The nickname, not America’s indigenous peoples.

The NCAA, which is bent on ridding the collegiate landscape of Native American nicknames and imagery it deems “hostile or abusive,” denied IUP’s second and final appeal to keep its nickname on April 28.

softball player

Uniforms like this one worn by softball player Julie Huebner in 2004 may be problematic in the future.

President Tony Atwater responded by empowering Davies—the newly appointed vice president for Institutional Advancement—to investigate the university’s next course of action. The question hovering like storm clouds over campus is: Do the university’s athletic teams continue as the Indians under threat of NCAA sanctions, or does IUP eliminate a nickname that dates to when the Charleston was in vogue?

“This will be one of the most contentious debates this university has had,” Davies said. “When this [NCAA] ruling came out, I received e-mails and phone calls from individuals saying, ‘It’s about time you change your name and take a stance for what is right.’ At the same time, I received e-mails and phone calls from others, saying, ‘Don’t you ever change the name. Take it on with the NCAA.’ There is no answer that will win 100 percent support; there’s no magic bullet that will appease everybody. In researching this situation, what is perfectly clear is you’re not going to make everyone happy. I go to bed every night knowing that.”

IUP exhausted every available option with the NCAA after the organization placed the university—along with eighteen other schools—on its “hit list” last summer for using Native American nicknames or symbols (IUP eliminated all Indian imagery in 1991). Not even the argument that the name Indiana literally means “land of the Indians” swayed the members of the NCAA Executive Committee.

So, what now? Atwater stated at a press conference that the administration will not punt on this issue. Sticking with the football analogy, he has handed the ball to Davies.

“We are employing an advisory team approach that will be very inclusive of the university community, representing the students, the alumni, the faculty, administrators, and staff members, to answer that question: Do we keep the nickname and face the sanctions, or do we change the nickname?” Davies said. “This process will provide recommendations, guidance, and advice to Dr. Atwater, who will make the final call in consultation with the Council of Trustees. Assuming that the answer is yes, we do change our nickname, then we’ll go through an exhaustive process of selecting a new nickname and possibly a mascot that is representative of IUP and the region, one that everyone will be proud to support.”   

Members of the IUP community doubtless numbering in the thousands ardently support the current nickname. Davies understands their attachment to “Indians.” What he wants them to understand are the repercussions should the university disregard the NCAA’s directive.

“The consequences are nothing to shake a finger at,” Davies said.

Just imagine the embarrassment were IUP’s athletic teams forced to cover offending symbols on their uniforms with duct tape. While a far-fetched scenario, it’s just one of the possibilities raised by Davies.

For example, IUP would not be permitted to host NCAA postseason events. That penalty would not only impact student-athletes but would likely influence potential ones, as well. Blue-chip recruits might consider the ban a deal breaker and enroll elsewhere. The absence of postseason home events might also have a deleterious effect on the local economy. Fans who once attended those events—and spent their dollars at local restaurants and hotels—would no longer be coming to Indiana.

Then there’s the uniform issue, in which athletes could wind up getting more than their ankles taped before games.

“While we would not be banned from postseason play, we would not be able to wear any uniforms that had any markings with Native American symbolism on them,” Davies said. “We’d have to cover up anything that represents Indians. Our logo for athletics, even though it does not have a direct Indian symbolism, if you look at it very carefully there are Indian connotations. And that might mean we’ll have to cover parts of our uniform. So maybe our student-athletes would be playing with duct tape across their chests.”

The NCAA might also discourage member schools from scheduling IUP—a  real headache, should the university take steps toward elevating its athletic program to Division I. Finally, there’s the stigma that comes with appearing on a sanctions list, regarded as an outcast in the world of intercollegiate athletics.

“Every time that IUP was mentioned, it would be comma, as a university on the official NCAA sanctions list that have abusive or hostile names,” Davies said. “I’m not sure that IUP, in its marketing and in trying to attract students and faculty members, would want that asterisk.”

The importance of marketing in the keep it-or-can-it debate cannot be underestimated. A new nickname might well facilitate the creation of accompanying imagery, the absence of which has clearly hurt the university.

“Our society is made up of pictures and logos and identifies with graphics,” Davies said. “Having the word Indian printed on various things without a graphic associated with it has made for challenges in the marketing of IUP. And make no mistake, this issue goes well beyond athletics. Mascots and logos become the identification of the university. It is how our current students, it is how our faculty members, it is how potential students and faculty view this university.”

The decision whether to keep the nickname or adopt a new one is expected to be made in the fall. In the meantime, Davies will analyze feedback from all segments of the IUP community, not only those on campus but in far-flung population centers. He foresees a series of alumni forums in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, New York, and Washington.  A website will also be used to gather, and share, information.

If the university ultimately opts for change, the advisory team will then solicit ideas for a new nickname. Various alternatives have already been proposed informally: Crimson Hawks, Crimson Thunder, Mustangs, Wolves, Mighty Oaks, Poets, even Hellbenders, a large salamander that inhabits local waters.

“This is an opportunity to really determine how we want IUP to be positioned on the national scale,” Davies said. “How do we want to be known in Seattle, in San Francisco, in New York, in Tampa, in Pittsburgh, and all points in between? Do we want to represent ourselves as being a creative nickname that kind of gets giggles like the UC-Santa Cruz Banana Slugs or the UC-Irvine Anteaters? That might be the process. I can’t foretell the future.”

That’s not entirely true. Davies definitely knows what looms ahead. He’s resigned to the fact that whatever recommendations are made—and whatever decision the university ultimately comes to—will unleash a firestorm of criticism from those who embraced an opposing viewpoint.

There’s no pleasing everyone. Robert Davies goes to bed every night knowing that.