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Utes nickname won't stay forever

Utah coach Kyle Whittingham during a University of Utah football scrimmage at Rice-Eccles Stadium Saturday, April 12, 2014,  in Salt Lake City.
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham during a University of Utah football scrimmage at Rice-Eccles Stadium Saturday, April 12, 2014, in Salt Lake City.
Tom Smart, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The University of Utah and its namesake, the Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation, announced on Tuesday they’re still in business together. It’s all there in writing. For the next five years, to “be reviewed annually,” the U. will continue to use the only Native American nickname in the Pac-12.

That’s a good thing in the eyes of both the university and the tribe. The school gets to continue calling itself the Utes, so long as it meets terms of the agreement. The tribe can use the university to educate the public to its history and heritage. Both parties consider it a winning agreement.

The tribe benefits from being associated with the state’s flagship public university, and fans get to continue shouting, “Go, Utes!” at games.

So everything’s cool, except the part where someone else makes a fuss. For instance, the universities of Wisconsin and Iowa, which have said they won’t play non-conference teams with Native American nicknames. That doesn’t actually apply to schools such as Utah that have been OK’d by the NCAA. Iowa played the Central Michigan Chippewas — another NCAA-approved nickname — in 2012.

Still, there are many who believe any Native American reference, sanctioned or not, is racist and unacceptable. I figure no matter how many contracts are signed, and how unified the front, Utah should have changed its mascot when it changed conferences.

It’s only a mascot … that has already been changed once (1972). When Utah switched from Redskins to Utes, it didn’t kill anyone. Side note: Does anybody know whatever happened to the Chicago Orphans or the Houston Colt 45s?

They became the Cubs and Astros, no big deal.

Utah is among a handful of universities that escaped the NCAA’s wrath in 2005, when it announced it would sanction schools with “hostile and abusive” Native American nicknames. Among other schools singled out were Central Michigan, Florida State (Seminoles), Bradley (Braves), Illinois (Fighting Illini), Louisiana-Monroe (Indians) and North Dakota (Fighting Sioux). Some changed, some didn’t, and North Dakota gave up on nicknames.

So fight-fight-fight! Gooooo….you!

But Utah got an NCAA waiver because it had agreed with the Ute Tribe to use the name. It seemed a reasonable compromise. Many tribal members have expressed pride that Utes would be a university name. At the same time, different branches of the same tribes don’t always agree, as in the North Dakota situation.

Equally vexing is that there are varying grades of offensive names. Tribal names aren’t considered as offensive as Braves, Warriors and Chiefs, which aren’t as offensive as Indians, which isn’t as offensive as Redskins and Savages. Gradually the number of Native American nicknames has dwindled to one-third of what it was.

William & Mary, formerly the Indians, but now the Tribe, was ordered to remove two feathers from its logo. Yet Utah still has two feathers on its football helmets.

Pragmatically, it’s not worth splitting hairs. I wrote a column in March about Weber State and North Dakota playing for the Big Sky championship. With no nickname, North Dakota had an air of incompleteness. But a caption writer referred to the school as the “Fighting Sioux,” which it hasn’t been for two years.

Shortly after, I received a letter from “Religious Americans against ‘Indian’ Nicknames and Logos.” In a polite but stern tone, it pointed out the offending caption, saying, “All major national and regional American Indian organizations oppose race-based sports team identities.”

This must have been news to the Ute Tribe, which this week was signing contracts to use its name.

The letter requested a correction be made, which it was.

The University of Utah can sign contracts with the tribe until it runs out of ink, but it can’t stop others from making calls that affect it, which they will as more protocols and protests appear. Somebody will refuse to schedule games. Other schools will change their nicknames. The NCAA might change its mind.

Utah should change its nickname, too, so this doesn’t keep coming up, even if the tribe is fine with it. No sense delaying the inevitable.

You can put that in writing too.

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