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Use of 'Savages' mascot debated

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  • Robert V. Schmidt
    http://www.newsok.com/article/1580151/ Use of Savages mascot debated By Jenni Carlson The Oklahoman DURANT — C.W. Mangrum has argued about legalizing drugs
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 15, 2005
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      Use of 'Savages' mascot debated

      By Jenni Carlson
      The Oklahoman

      DURANT — C.W. Mangrum has argued about legalizing drugs and fighting
      organized crime, averting energy crises and providing government-funded
      medical care.

      A longtime debate coach, he’s used to examining and researching every angle
      of an issue, then taking up sides.

      No wonder Mangrum was picked to help lead the discussion about the future
      of the Savages as Southeastern Oklahoma State University’s mascot.

      Originally selected by the student body as a way to honor the strength and
      courage of American Indians, the term “savages” is seen by most in a
      different light now. A harsh glare.

      Like so many times before, the man who now oversees the university’s School
      of Arts and Sciences is set to engage in one of the nation’s biggest
      debates. This time around, it is the use of American Indian mascots. Should
      his school’s teams be called the Savages? Or should a recent NCAA decision
      deeming such nicknames “hostile and abusive” kill them?

      University presidents and chancellors serving on the NCAA’s most powerful
      committee decided a week ago that these schools would forfeit the
      opportunity to host postseason play. Their mascots and nicknames would be
      banned regardless of where they played. Redmen, Seminoles, and Chippewas.
      Braves, Utes and Choctaws. Indians, Illini and Fighting Sioux. Savages,

      For the NCAA, it’s a question of image and inclusiveness.

      For Southeastern, it’s a slightly different question. Should it ditch a
      tradition dating back to the 1920s or surrender any chance of having
      home-field advantage in the playoffs?

      “I just don’t know,” Mangrum said. “I thought I did ... but then I got all
      this stuff.”

      He slapped his palms on a pair of two-inch-thick manila folders. They bulge
      with photocopies of Sports Illustrated articles and printouts from cnn.com.
      Mangrum began gathering the information almost four years ago when
      Southeastern president Glen Johnson formed a group to study the future of
      the school’s mascot. Mangrum was named co-chair of the Mascot Task Force.

      Those 20 people must figure out what to do about the Savages, a mascot that
      moved one West Coast columnist to suggest the disbanding of the entire
      athletic department. Yet this small school has produced big-time stars.
      Dennis Rodman played here. So did Brett Butler. Southeastern has won
      championship in a bunch of sports, and with continued success since moving
      from NAIA to Division-II — baseball claimed the title in 2000 — winning
      seems sure to continue for the Savages.

      In this town an hour east of Ardmore the nickname elicits shrugs from most
      folks. The Choctaw Nation’s headquarters are less than a mile from the
      school, while the Chickasaw Nation sits just up the road, but the tribes
      are more concerned about health care than athletic mascots.

      “I would not say it’s not an issue,” Mangrum said. “I would say if you
      listed the top 100 issues, it might not make the list.”

      Yet the NCAA’s decision has thrust the debate upon Durant. Over the past
      decade, Southeastern has gradually but steadily distanced itself from much
      of the imagery associated with its nickname, but now the school will be
      penalized if it doesn’t move away from the mascot completely. Even though
      Southeastern is not planning to appeal or take legal action against the
      NCAA, the university still faces a big question.

      Are the Savages’ days numbered?

      * * *

      John Massey goes to every Southeastern football game. Basketball games are
      a different story.

      “I don’t go,” he said. “I get so enthused inside that I can’t sleep.”

      Sitting in his second-floor office at the bank building on Main Street, he

      “I’ve asked them to move the games to Saturday afternoons.”

      Maybe then Massey would have time to wind down before he went to bed. Even
      though he cheers for Oklahoma, Southeastern has his heart. Consider him a
      Savage super fan.

      And he doesn’t see anything wrong with that.

      “The NCAA is stepping in something probably they shouldn’t have,” Massey
      said. “This needs to be worked out between the tribes and the colleges.

      “All the Choctaws I know of were very pleased that (Southeastern’s) called
      the Savages. I haven’t heard any of the Choctaw people complain about it. I
      haven’t heard any of the university people or alumni complain about it.
      It’s just something we always took pride in, being Savages.”

      Massey rolled an unlit but well-chewed cigar around in his fingers.

      “I don’t know what the problem is.”

      If anyone is fit to gauge the pulse of the campus and the community, it is
      Massey. A former representative in both houses of the state senate and a
      current member of the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education, he has
      given Southeastern several major financial gifts. The school of business is
      named in his honor.

      His involvement extends beyond the university, though. Massey is chairman
      of the board at First United Bank, which is headquartered in Durant. That
      has launched him into education programs in the public schools as well as
      business development in the surrounding community.

      Massey has seen Durant grow in recent years as industry has expanded and
      population has blossomed. The town of about 15,000 still has a
      quintessential downtown of brick buildings and plate-glass store fronts
      untouched by national chains. Other areas, though, are reminiscent of any
      American suburb, complete with fast food and strip malls.

      Durant’s combination of yesteryear and modern day have created some issues,
      but not one about Native American mascots. “There is no issue here,” Massey
      said. “The chief is on my board here, and I have not heard him ever say
      anything about it. He and the president ... are very close.”

      Massey pointed to the wall beside his desk.

      “There’s a picture of the three of us right there.”

      A black-and-white image captured Massey with Choctaw chief Gregory Pyle and
      Southeastern president Glen Johnson. They smiled and shook hands, a picture
      of harmony.

      * * *

      The woman who speaks on behalf of the Choctaw Nation held her right index
      finger four inches above her left index finger.

      “We had a stack of council bills this high,” Judy Allen said.

      She spent all morning and a good part of the afternoon Friday at the
      Committee of the Whole. The monthly meeting brings together the chief, the
      assistant chief and all of the 12 elected officials on the tribal council.

      They addressed all sorts of problems and heard all measure of requests.

      “We have people that are needing basic things,” Allen said. “They have
      roofing problems, electricity problems, water problems, education problems,
      health problems. That’s where the focus of time and energy ... go.”

      Not to the debate about American Indian mascots.

      “We’ve not made an issue of it because we have a lot going on,” Allen said.

      Even if those other issues were taken care of, the Choctaw Nation still
      might not raise a stink over Southeastern’s mascot. The tribe and the
      school have long been strong partners. Most recently, they combined efforts
      to secure a $965,000 grant that will provide scholarships to American
      Indian students who want to teach in areas with high concentrations of
      native people.

      Then there are the renovations at Choctaw Tower. School officials asked the
      tribe if it wanted to partner in the overhaul of the on-campus dorm that
      already bore its name. The Choctaws provided $345,000, then took it upon
      themselves to call the historical society, purchase dozens of vintage
      pictures from the tribe’s history, and pay to frame and hang them in the

      The Chickasaw Nation provided similar funding for the renovation of
      Chickasaw Tower, next-door twin of Choctaw Tower.

      “They’re good neighbors,” Allen said of the university, “and we’ve been
      good neighbors back to them.”

      * * *

      Paintings of Indians in colorful, traditional dress cover one wall in Glen
      Johnson’s office. A carved pipe with intricate beading occupy a shelf near
      the window. The decor in the president’s office at Southeastern is obvious
      but understated.

      Same goes for the Native American influence on campus.

      About a quarter of the university’s 4,300 students are American Indian, but
      while the Choctaws are filling dorm walls with their heritage, the rest of
      the campus is almost devoid of it. There are no towering statues. There are
      no larger-than-life depictions. The heritage is there, but it isn’t over
      the top and teetering toward offensive either.

      “We had a Native American Indian head designation on the gym and the
      bookstore,” Johnson said. “When it came time to do renovations ... we took
      those designations down. That was done consciously.”

      Where athletics is concerned, the word “Savages” as well as arrows and
      feathers have been removed from teams’ uniforms, placed by the more neutral
      “Southeastern” or “SE.” Not all references have been erased. The scoreboard
      at the baseball field proclaims it “Home of the Savages.” The pressbox at
      the football field has “SOUTHEASTERN SAVAGES” in letters as tall as young

      Whether all that should change was a question Southeastern began exploring
      long before the NCAA’s ruling.

      After the issue arose during the school’s annual Native American Symposium
      in 2000, Johnson decided to form the Mascot Task Force. The group consisted
      of 20 people from a variety of backgrounds. There were students, alumni and
      faculty, and some had strong ties to the athletic department while others
      did not.

      “Is retaining the mascot the best interest?” Johnson asked the group. “Is
      it time for us to look at a change and make a change?”

      The task force began looking into how the mascot affected the recruitment
      of students and the retention of them as well as how it impacted
      fundraising. The group met monthly for about a year and a half and was on
      the verge of beginning focus groups and conducting a broad survey when the
      NCAA alerted Southeastern that it was going to be looking at the issue,

      As it did in 2002 with all of the 33 schools deemed to have American Indian
      mascots, the NCAA asked Southeastern for some basic information. How the
      mascot originated. What images are used in its portrayal. Whether there has
      been any controversy or institutional review. Whether there were American
      Indian programs on campus and connections with local tribes.

      Southeastern filed its report with the NCAA late in the summer of 2003.

      In the winter of 2004, the NCAA requested more information from all the
      schools in question. Southeastern filed a 35-page report that went more
      in-depth with information about the mascot, its origins and its impact on
      the campus and community. The school also went into detail about its
      American Indian students and its relationship with the local tribes.

      Then, it waited.

      About eight months passed before last week’s ruling.

      “Immediately the question is, “Are you going to appeal?’ ” Johnson said.
      “At this point, we don’t have plans to. We’ve taken the issue seriously
      before 2002 when the NCAA put it on its radar screen. It was before then
      and continues to be a very serious issue for us.”

      Johnson plans to reconvene the Mascot Task Force, which suspended
      operations when the NCAA made its initial inquiries. Just as he did before,
      Johnson will ask the group to consider what is in the best interest of the

      Several of the athletic venues are being improved. The citizens of Durant
      passed bond issues funding new turf and renovations at the football field
      as well as a new basketball arena. If the NCAA ruling about American Indian
      mascots stands, though, Southeastern will never be eligible to host
      postseason play at any of its facilities.

      “That is a factor,” Johnson said. “There’s going to be some very practical
      discussions about what that means. What’s the best for the university?
      What’s the best for our future?”

      Those answers have yet to be determined.

      “We want to do the right thing,” Johnson said.

      * * *

      The magnolia-lined loop brings the world to the heart of campus and the
      view from C.W. Mangrum’s window. The last days of summer are fading fast,
      students returning to campus and classes beginning next week. There will be
      fewer parking spots and more pedestrians.

      For now, though, all is quiet.

      Same goes for the mascot debate.

      “We’re not as high profile as the Seminoles, obviously,” Mangrum said of
      Florida State, which has promised a legal battle if it isn’t given an
      exemption from the NCAA. “But it does seem that even with non-Indians,
      Savages is particularly irksome.”

      Several media pundits from around the country have been harsh on
      Southeastern. Among them, Los Angeles Times sports columnist Bill Plashke,
      who last weekend wrote of the school, “considering its nickname is the
      ‘Savages,’ one can only hope they disband the athletic program entirely.”

      Campus leaders say they are not concerned by national perceptions. They are
      focused on local ones.

      “We’re in the national headquarters of the Choctaw Nation,” Mangrum said.
      “We’re going to set out intentionally to offend them?

      “I don’t think so.”

      Mangrum flipped open one of his manila envelopes and retrieved a single
      sheet of paper. On the right side, a picture of a hand raising a
      Southeastern football helmet. On the left, a poem titled “Being a Savage.”

      Penned by John K. Sullenger III, a player on the 1999 conference
      championship football team, it is a window into the emotion of many who
      have called themselves Savages. The school might decide that home-field
      advantage in the playoff is paramount, but those ties to such a long-held
      tradition will be hard to undo.

      The final stanza says:

      “Being a Savage

      Means brothers to the end.

      They don’t quit on you

      And you never quit on them.”
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