Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Illinois decries NCAA 'rhetoric'

Illinois decries NCAA 'rhetoric'

Trustee says Chief, school's nickname are different issues

By Neil Milbert

Tribune staff reporter

August 16, 2005,

 CHAMPAIGN -- The chairman of the Illinois Board of Trustees said Tuesday the NCAA's characterization of the words Illini and Fighting Illini and the mascot Chief Illiniwek as "hostile" and "abusive" to Native Americans injected "incendiary rhetoric" and has created an impediment to a solution.

"My point was not pro-Chief or con-Chief," Chairman Lawrence Eppley told the Tribune. "It was Chief-neutral. My point is: What's the point of the rhetoric?"

Eppley's remarks came in the wake of a commentary by NCAA President Myles Brand published in USA Today concerning the NCAA Executive Committee's decision to bar Illinois and 17 other schools from hosting postseason events and using Native American imagery on uniforms or logos and banning performances by their mascots in tournaments.

In his commentary, Brand called the decision "a teachable moment" in initiating a national discussion about the portrayal of Native Americans.

"The Executive Committee's uninformed use of inflammatory rhetoric does not create a teachable moment," Eppley said in a rebuttal letter sent to USA Today and the Champaign News-Gazette but not published as of Tuesday. "Instead, it retards meaningful discussion ... on an important issue, especially in the communities of 18 institutions 'branded' by the NCAA as politically incorrect.

"Surely there are better ways of initiating discussion on a national basis than to decree that the traditions of 18 member institutions, many of which are rooted in reverence and decorum, are 'hostile' and 'abusive.'

"At the University of Illinois we are engaged in a dialogue regarding our 80-year-old Chief Illiniwek tradition. Our goal is a solution that embraces heritage and culture through the resources and reach of a major university, not one that pretends American Indians never thrived and created a rich history in our state."

Eppley emphasized that "the Chief issue" and "the name issue" are different.

"We feel they shouldn't be connected," he said. "They meet up in athletics, but historically there is a significant disconnection between the two.

"Our research showed the nicknames Illini and Fighting Illini to be outside the American Indian derivation. Here comes the NCAA and throws them together [with Chief Illiniwek]. It's a giant step backward."

University research shows the state of Illinois was named after the Illinois River. The river was named by a French explorer in 1679, and the name came from the Native Americans who lived along its banks. Illinois was the French spelling of the Native American word Iliniwok. The Iliniwok were a confederation of the Cahokia, Kaskaskia, Michiganmea, Moinwena, Peoria and Tamaroa tribes.

An abbreviated version was adopted by students at the university in 1874 when the school newspaper changed its named from the Student to the Illini.

The evolution from Illini to Fighting Illini stemmed from the vernacular use of "fighting" that conveyed the sense of trying to succeed and dates back to coach Bob Zuppke's championship football team of 1919. "Coined by our student newspaper 52 years before the Chief Illiniwek tradition was established, 'Illini' is merely a moniker derived from our state's name, which like the names of 27 other states and countless villages and cities is derived from a Native American term," Eppley said in his letter.

"'Fighting Illini' can be traced to the campaign to build Memorial Stadium in honor of University of Illinois students and alumni who fought and died in World War I."

Eppley also cited a 1995 finding by the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights that seems to contradict the NCAA's designation of the nickname and mascot as "hostile" and "abusive." Said Eppley:

"After exhaustively investigating a formal complaint that the Chief [and] the name Fighting Illini violated provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1994, the OCR concluded that the existence of the Chief did not constitute a racially hostile environment at the university.

"I know what we've been trying to accomplish-without the clutter and noise. We've [made] progress. I'm still optimistic."



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