Friday, May 05, 2006

Chief Illiniwek's days could be numbered

Chief Illiniwek's days could be numbered
Bloomington Pantagraph
By Jim Paul
Associated press

URBANA -- After years of debate over whether the University of Illinois' Chief Illiniwek represents honor or racism, time finally might be running out for the 80-year-old tradition.
Friday's decision from the executive committee of the NCAA that Illiniwek belongs on a list of imagery that is "hostile and abusive" likely means Illinois will have to give up the mascot or risk losing its ability to compete for championships on the athletic field.
The decision bars Illinois from playing host to future postseason tournaments, a factor, officials say, that would hurt the school's ability to recruit top athletes.
"The action that took place last week and what the university does about it has to be done in the context of the impact on the Division of Intercollegiate Athletics," university spokesman Tom Hardy said Monday. "Right now, we are not in compliance" with the NCAA ruling.
The effect will be nearly immediate. Despite its No. 8 national ranking, Illinois likely will be left out when sites are announced Wednesday for the opening rounds of the men's tennis tournament, which the school has hosted for eight straight years.
It is that kind of impact - on sports such as tennis, gymnastics, volleyball and soccer - that very well could mean the end of Chief Illiniwek.
"The department has invested large amounts of resources in facilities, scholarships and coaches in our Olympic sports," athletic director Ron Guenther said last week. "The inability to host NCAA competition would have an unbelievably negative effect on our programs."
The debate about Chief Illiniwek has raged for years on the university's Urbana-Champaign campus. Supporters say the tradition of a student dressed in buckskins dancing at halftime honors the state's heritage, while opponents say it perpetuates a racial stereotype that demeans American Indians.
The school has few options should it decide to challenge the NCAA
-Rep. Tim Johnson, R-Ill., whose district includes the UI campus, has said he has considered introducing legislation to prevent the NCAA from invading institutional autonomy. He also has expressed doubt that he could gain enough support.
-The university could challenge the NCAA in court. While some supporters of the Chief have called for this, it would be difficult. "It would be fairly costly to do. It would be very time consuming. It would create a kind of renewed rancor and divisiveness publicly," Hardy said.
-The university could retain Illiniwek and forgo playing host to postseason competition. Such a move might be viewed as contrary to the university's athletic mission to have the highest quality programs, ones that allow athletes to compete for championships.
On campus Monday, students were more concerned with preparing for final exams than with wading into the Illiniwek debate. Junior nursing student Sarah Nazarian of Champaign called the controversy a "silly situation."
"Maybe if I paid more attention to it and actually cared, it might make a difference to me. But I really don't care," she said.
Senior biology student Katherine Waser said she felt bad for the tennis team but had not known about Friday's decision until informed by a reporter. Civil engineering student David Osorio said the controversy has taken attention away from the university's accomplishments outside of athletics.
"My personal take is lose the Chief the first chance we get," he said.
Officially, the university's board of trustees is weighing its options, Hardy said. While tennis will be affected this spring, a final decision on Illiniwek's fate probably won't have to be made until just before football season late this summer.
But one observer who has followed the debate since it began is convinced the Chief's demise is imminent.
"The Chief is gone," said Loren Tate, a sports columnist for The (Champaign) News-Gazette and a supporter of the tradition. "I don't see any way out."

Copyright © 2006, Pantagraph Publishing Co. All rights reserved.


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