Chief Among the Silliness
The Washington POst
By George F. Will
Thursday, January 5, 2006;
The University of Illinois must soon decide whether, and if so how, to fight an exceedingly silly edict from the NCAA. That organization's primary function is to require college athletics to be no more crassly exploitative and commercial than is absolutely necessary. But now the NCAA is going to police cultural sensitivity, as it understands that. Hence the decision to declare Chief Illiniwek "hostile and abusive" to Native Americans.
Censorship -- e.g., campus speech codes -- often is academic liberalism's preferred instrument of social improvement, and now the NCAA's censors say: The Chief must go, as must the university's logo of a Native American in feathered headdress. Otherwise the NCAA will not allow the university to host any postseason tournaments or events.
This story of progress, as progressives understand that, began during halftime of a football game in 1926, when an undergraduate studying Indian culture performed a dance dressed as a chief. Since then, a student has always served as Chief Illiniwek, who has become the symbol of the university that serves a state named after the Illini confederation of about a half-dozen tribes that were virtually annihilated in the 1760s by rival tribes.
In 1930 the student then portraying Chief Illiniwek traveled to South Dakota to receive authentic raiment from the Oglala Sioux. In 1967 and 1982, representatives of the Sioux, who had not yet discovered that they were supposed to feel abused, came to the Urbana-Champaign campus to augment the outfits Chief Illiniwek wears at football and basketball games.
But grievance groups have multiplied, seeking reparations for historical wrongs and regulations to assuage current injuries inflicted by "insensitivity." One of America's booming businesses is the indignation industry, which manufactures the synthetic outrage needed to fuel identity politics.
The NCAA is allowing Florida State University and the University of Utah to continue calling their teams Seminoles and Utes, respectively, because those two tribes approve of the tradition. The Saginaw Chippewa tribe starchily denounces any "outside entity" -- that would be you, NCAA -- that would disrupt the tribe's "rich relationship" with Central Michigan University and its teams, the Chippewas. The University of North Carolina at Pembroke can continue calling its teams the Braves. Bravery is a virtue, so perhaps the 21 percent of the school's students who are Native Americans consider the name a compliment.
The University of North Dakota's Fighting Sioux may have to find another nickname because the various Sioux tribes cannot agree about whether they are insulted. But the only remnant of the Illini confederation, the Peoria tribe, is now in Oklahoma. Under its chief, John Froman, the tribe is too busy running a casino and golf course to care about Chief Illiniwek. The NCAA ethicists probably reason that the Chief must go because no portion of the Illini confederation remains to defend him.
Or to be offended by him, but never mind that, or this: In 1995 the Office of Civil Rights in President Bill Clinton's Education Department, a nest of sensitivity-mongers, rejected the claim that the Chief and the name Fighting Illini created for anyone a "hostile environment" on campus.
In 2002 Sports Illustrated published a poll of 351 Native Americans, 217 living on reservations, 134 living off. Eighty-one percent said high school and college teams should not stop using Indian nicknames.
But in any case, why should anyone's disapproval of a nickname doom it? When, in the multiplication of entitlements, did we produce an entitlement for everyone to go through life without being annoyed by anything, even a team's nickname? If some Irish or Scots were to take offense at Notre Dame's Fighting Irish or the Fighting Scots of Monmouth College, what rule of morality would require the rest of us to care? Civilization depends on, and civility often requires, the willingness to say, "What you are doing is none of my business" and "What I am doing is none of your business."
But this is an age when being an offended busybody is considered evidence of advanced thinking and an exquisite sensibility. So, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has demanded that the University of South Carolina's teams not be called Gamecocks because cockfighting is cruel. It also is illegal in South Carolina.
In 1972 the University of Massachusetts at Amherst replaced the nickname Redmen with Minutemen. White men carrying guns? If some advanced thinkers are made miserable by this, will the NCAA's censors offer relief? Scottsdale Community College in Arizona was wise to adopt the nickname "Fighting Artichokes." There is no grievance group representing the lacerated feelings of artichokes. Yet.
© 2006 The Washington Post Company