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Mascot Madness

Ever since the NCAA published it's list of eighteen schools with "hostile and abusive" mascots, there has been quite a bit of interest in the NCAA's latest attempts at intercollegiate regulation here at the University of Illinois. The publication of this list put Illinois (my employer, for the record) squarely in the NCAA's sights on this issue. According to today's Daily Illini, the student paper on campus, the NCAA recently removed two schools from the infamous "hostile and abusive" list following changes in their mascots. One of these institutions, Carthage College, changed it's athletic team's nickname from "Redmen" to "Red Men." On the face of it, this decision puzzles me. The justification reported in the article provides some context:

The new nickname, spokesman Robert Rosen said, is actually a return to the school's original moniker, which was adopted because of Carthage's sports teams' red uniforms.

"The name was modified to two words to reconnect with that original meaning," Rosen said. "In actual practice, we haven't had any Native American imagery with the name since the 1980s."

Riiiiight. So apparently one word nicknames are hostile and abusive but two word nicknames are A-OK. According to the NCAA's press release "... we support the development of a new policy statement that will communicate the school's historical meaning of the ‘Red Men’ nickname..."

I am just an economist, and not a semiotician. On a good day I'm reasonably literate and have decent reading comprehension skills, relative to my peers. I can occasionally discern traces of rational thought behind NCAA activities. But I am stumped by this pronouncement. "Redmen" is hostile and abusive, but "Red Men" is acceptable. Perhaps Carthage College should have gone whole-hog and changed their nickname to "Red Man" angling for the obvious corporate tie-in and product placement opportunities.

The NCAA's attempt to regulate mascots raises a number of interesting economic issues. If people really find these mascots offensive, then there might be negative economic consequences. These consequences could include lower ticket and licensed merchandise sales, lower levels of donations, and smaller appropriations from state legislatures for public institutions. Faculty might find it more difficult to attract outside funding to support research. If the total cost of retaining a hostile and abusive mascot exceeds the total benefit, then a school might change its mascot to something more acceptable without any heavy-handed regulation from the NCAA. This happened at Stanford, Dartmouth, and St. Johns, among other schools in the past twenty years. In this context, the NCAA's ban on hosting post-season events at schools with hostile and abusive mascots could be interpreted as an attempt to increase the total cost of a mascot at an institution, and bring about additional mascot changes. But if changing "Redmen" to "Red Men" satisfies the NCAA, it calls into question the motivation for the hostile and abusive list and the intended goals of the regulation.

Stay tuned - Illinois' appeal is currently under consideration by the NCAA.