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U. may have to yield Ute nickname

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The University of Utah — nickname: the Utes — is one of 18 schools targeted Friday by the NCAA for using Indian imagery or references in their logos and for their mascots.

As a result of a new NCAA policy announced Friday, if any U. athletic team wants to host a championship tournament after Feb. 1, 2006, the school may have to cover up or silence any Native American image or reference, and possibly nix the nickname Utes.

The NCAA wants the schools to follow "model" institutions like the University of Iowa and University of Wisconsin, which don't use any Native American mascots or imagery.

After a meeting Friday in Indianapolis, the NCAA's Executive Committee announced it will also prohibit colleges and universities from using Native American mascots, nicknames and imagery at any of the 88 NCAA championships, effective Aug. 1, 2008.

"It doesn't come as a real shock to me," U. President Michael Young said of the NCAA's decision.

The U. is taking a "wait and see" approach until it receives an official report from the NCAA, according to a statement from Liz Abel, U. associate athletics director. The U. may have to replace any drum and feather logos with the block U., but there otherwise should be no significant impact at the U., according to Abel.

However, Florida State University President T.K. Wetherell stated on the school's athletics Web page that FSU — nicknamed the Seminoles — is "stunned" by the NCAA committee's "complete lack of appreciation for cultural diversity. . . ."

The NCAA committee is made up of school presidents and chancellors, who said colleges and universities cannot display "hostile and abusive racial/ethnic/national origin mascots, nicknames or imagery" at NCAA championship events.

Committee chairman and University of Hartford President Walter Harrison said colleges and universities can adopt any mascot they wish, but if they want to play in any NCAA championship event, they cannot show mascots, nicknames or images the NCAA deems hostile or abusive.

Forrest Cuch, a member of the Ute tribe and executive director of the Utah Division of Indian Affairs, said he supports the "spirit and intent" of the NCAA's new policy.

Still, "I just hope they will be open to some looser interpretation," Cuch said over the phone. "In the case of the University of Utah, the intent is not to insult or misrepresent," added Cuch. The university, he said, has exercised discretion and consulted the tribe on a regular basis on the use of the nickname.

Schools like the University of Illinois, with its Chief Illiniwek mascot, and professional teams like the Washington Redskins need to change, Cuch added.

"The name 'Redskins' is very disrespectful," Cuch said. The term refers to a time in history when the king of England called for the scalping of Indians as proof of bounty, Cuch said.

The U. has already stopped using references to and imagery of Indian culture in its logos, except for the drum and feather. It even removed the word "Runnin' " from the nickname of the Utes' basketball team.

"We try to be very respectful," Young said.

The university did have a face-off with the tribe in 1996, when the tribe threatened to sue for "reparations" for using the Ute name. Then-U. President Arthur K. Smith responded that the school would not pay for use of the name but would drop the name if it offended tribal members. The dispute ended with Ute leaders saying "they would not oppose the school's continued use of the nickname, as long as it was used 'respectfully and with dignity.' "

NCAA President Myles Brand in a press release praised several institutions that now "adhere to the core values of the NCAA Constitution pertaining to cultural diversity, ethical sportsmanship and nondiscrimination" by banning references to race, ethnicity or national origin in their nicknames and mascots.

So, the Ute nickname and images of feathers and drums on some team uniforms may be the only sticking points left for the NCAA and its new rule as it relates to the U.

Young, who was on vacation Friday, said in an interview that he will study the NCAA pronouncement to determine what, if anything, the U.'s sports teams need to change.

Wetherell said in his online statement that he intends to pursue all legal avenues to overturn the NCAA's decision.

Young would not speculate on whether the issue would rise to a legal battle with the NCAA.

"These things come out of the blue from time to time from the NCAA — this could change," Young said.

Wetherell said the Seminole Tribal Council in June "unequivocally" supported FSU's use of the Seminole name.

Last month, Young said he received approval from the Ute Tribal Council to continue using the Ute name.

"They were very supportive," Young said. "They appreciate the distinction we bring to the name."

Young said the U. does nothing to make fun of or belittle the Ute name — no tomahawk chops, no chants or Indian dances.

U. spokeswoman Coralie Alder said the school has been careful with tribal leaders to follow the right procedures in using the Ute name.

"If they were to tell us not to use their name . . . we would look at another option," Alder said.

Last fall, 33 schools were asked by the NCAA to submit self-evaluations to determine the extent, if any, the school uses or makes reference to Native American imagery.

The NCAA lists 18 colleges and universities that continue to use Indian imagery or references, including the U. All of those schools are now subject to the new policy.

Fourteen schools have already removed all references — or never had any — to Native American culture, according to the NCAA.

The "Utes" and "Redskins" were both nicknames once used by U. athletic teams, according to the school's 2005 football media guide. Utes became the official nickname in 1972, "when college campuses became sensitive to the concerns of tribal members."

The guide goes on to say that the U. uses the Ute name with permission from the Ute Tribal Council. The council has also given the U. permission, according to the media guide, to use the mascot named "Swoop," depicting a red-tailed hawk, a bird indigenous to Utah.

According to Cuch, approximately 3,300 Utes live on two reservations in Utah and at least 500 more live off-reservation in the state.

The meaning of the word Ute, the U. guide states, ranges from "high place" and "top of the mountain" to "people of the mountains" and "land of the sun."

E-mail: sspeckman@desnews.com