There’s really only one — sometimes awkward — way to be sure that your language and behavior haven’t offended someone who you hope is a friend of yours. You ask. And you respect the answer you get.
That’s what the University of Utah has rightly done in regard to the question of whether it is proper for it to continue to use the Ute nickname, and the circle and feather logo, to represent its sports teams.
The new agreement university President David Pershing struck with the Ute Indian Tribe last week is a good one that not only sought and received the blessing of the tribe’s elected leaders for the continued use of the moniker, but also offers the tribe some substantive benefits in return.
Professional and college sports teams that use Native American names, symbols and expressions as their mascots and emblems always claim, of course, that they mean nothing but respect for the peoples whose images they appropriate. No organization, they argue, would willingly give itself an image identifying with any group it sees as weaklings, buffoons or victims.
Clearly, though, it isn’t always true. The blunt racial slur that continues to be the nickname of the National Football League team in our nation’s capital, along with the hurtfully cartoonish images that decorate the licensed gear of, for example, the Cleveland Indians, perpetuate stereotypes that demean human beings for the sake of a joke and a sale.
The advantage the University of Utah has in this regard is that its nickname is not just a general ethnic term of arguable authenticity. It is a clear reference to a specific group of people with elected leaders who can represent their interests.
The memorandum of understanding leaves some things, like the exact amount of money to be devoted to scholarships and outreach, vague. One could argue that the Utes should have held out for a more specific, and more lucrative, deal.
But it does commit the university to such things as offering scholarships to young Ute tribe members, along with other Native Americans. It also promises other outreach efforts that include bringing Ute youths onto campus and helping them with the often difficult, for people of any ethnic background, process of applying for college admission and lining up all the necessary financial aid.
The licensing of images for commercial use is nothing new for colleges. It’s just that, usually, it is the school that grants permission, in return for cash, rather than seeking it.
But this is about more than money. It’s about respect. And, from that standpoint, it’s a good deal all around.
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