LOS ANGELES — On game days in Thermal, where date farms and desert surroundings evoke the Middle East and nearby communities have names like Mecca and Oasis, fans cheer a high school team known as the Arabs.
A belly dancer jiggles on center court. And a black-haired, mustached mascot wearing a head scarf rallies the crowd.
At least that's the way it was done for decades in the community 120 miles southeast of Los Angeles until Arab-Americans recently objected to a hook-nosed, snarling image used to represent Coachella Valley High School.
The school has agreed to give the mascot a makeover, but not to drop the nickname.
"We're still going to stick with the Arab," said school board president Lowell Kemper after scores of residents defended the tradition dating back generations. "It's just a matter of whether we have a change in the caricature of the mascot."
It's a twist on a decades-old issue that has centered primarily on Native American mascots, logos and nicknames and has transformed Indians to Cardinal at Stanford University and Chieftains to Redhawks at Seattle University.
But the Arab debate spurs the same set of questions: Is it possible to craft a mascot in the image of an ethnic group that doesn't offend, or are schools better off scrapping the idea altogether?
The debate comes as the more familiar Indian controversy has gained increased heat.
Last year, Oregon's Board of Education decided to cut state funding to schools that fail to retire their Native American mascots, while Wisconsin passed a law in 2010 that forces schools to drop race-based mascots if a complaint is filed and the practice is found discriminatory.
Earlier this year, President Barack Obama said if he owned the National Football League's Washington Redskins he would consider altering the team's name, winning praise from Native American groups that have led rallies and run ads pushing for the change.