Thursday, May 04, 2006

NCAA Leaves University in Tough Spot

NCAA Leaves University in Tough Spot
From the Herald & Review

CHAMPAIGN - Friday's decision by the NCAA Executive Committee to reject the University of Illinois' second appeal on behalf of Chief Illiniwek backs the school into a difficult corner.
And it makes fans trying to figure it all out ask two questions: What happens from here? Will we ever again see Chief Illiniwek dance at a home football or basketball game?
Since the NCAA took it upon itself to become the moral conscience for college athletics, it is trying to rid the world of the dangerous and sinister influence of Native American symbols and imagery. Ruling those symbols "hostile and abusive," the NCAA ordered schools to drop those symbols, mascots, nicknames and imagery if they want to retain the right to host NCAA championships in any sport.
At Illinois, sports like tennis, soccer, volleyball, baseball, softball and gymnastics are prime candidates to host early-round NCAA tournament matches, a privilege that goes to teams ranked highest in their regions. Illinois is also a candidate to host future national championships, as men's gymnastics did in 2004.
Even basketball is a potential casualty, since the NCAA now owns the NIT and allows teams with good home attendance records to host early-round games.
We realize there are some fans who will say, "The heck with those sports. Football and basketball are the only sports that matter. Let's thumb our nose at the NCAA and preserve the Chief at all costs."
Director of Athletics Ron Guenther adamantly disagrees with that stance, having said, "One of the components of the Division of Intercollegiate Athletics' mission statement is to compete at the highest levels for Big Ten and national championships. The department has invested large amounts of resources in facilities, scholarships and coaches in our Olympic sports.
"The inability to host NCAA championship competition would have an unbelievably negative effect on our programs," Guenther said. Such a ban, he said, would put Illini athletics at a competitive disadvantage and make it hard to recruit top student-athletes and coaches.
Keep that thought in mind.
Right now, it would seem the university has three choices.
One, it can accept - albeit reluctantly - a decision the NCAA called "final" Friday. That means the Chief will never again perform as part a university athletic event. It means the university can no longer market or sell the Chief logo or likeness. It means Decatur's Kyle Cline would become a footnote in history as the last person to portray the Chief full-time.
Two, you can take the position of the imaginary fan I quoted above. That's the position that says, "Screw the NCAA. Only football and basketball matter and we should continue to celebrate Chief Illiniwek at halftime of our games even if it means never again hosting an NCAA championship event."
Or, three, the university could take the NCAA to court, perhaps convincing a judge to rule that the NCAA has overstepped its bounds. That would likely be a long and expensive process and it may have to be funded by private funds, since Sen. Emil Jones, an anti-Chief advocate who is president of the state senate, has said money spent litigating this would be subtracted from the university's budget.
In that case, however, the NCAA would simply say they haven't taken away the right of a school to retain its Native American symbols and imagery. They've simply protected their own right to award championship competitions wherever they choose and they will choose not to award them to schools whose mascots dance around in a feathered headdress.
If there's a fourth option, it's this: The university could elect to temporarily retain the Chief through the end of the upcoming football season. Call it a Farewell Tour, but there might be a feeling that Chief Illiniwek deserves a prolonged going-away tribute rather than simply chopping him out of the picture abruptly and ingloriously.
Then, after the Chief danced a final time at the last home game Nov. 11, the university could announce it would comply with the NCAA's directive, a move that would take its name off the NCAA's bad boy list.
That delay would eliminate the tennis team's chance to host early-round NCAA tournaments next month, although those already may have been lost, and it could impact next season's soccer season. But that might be a reasonable price to pay if we want to celebrate the Chief one more fall.
University big-wigs were meeting on Friday, kicking around all the options. At some point they'll announce a course of action.
Further down the road, there are sure to be efforts to sustain the Chief Illiniwek tradition by organizations not affiliated with the university. It's been suggested the Alumni Association might be that group, but that strikes me as stepping into a gray area that might incur the NCAA's wrath.
Some other outside group, however, could independently choose to preserve the history of Chief Illiniwek and arrange for performances before each home football and basketball game. Those might take place one hour before kickoff at the intersection of First Street and Kirby, which, so far as I know, is not technically university property.
And no matter what happens, there's nothing to say 60,000 Illini fans couldn't show up at the home football opener Sept. 2 wearing a Chief-like headdress.
At this point, the NCAA still can't dictate what individual fans wear to the games, although I wouldn't be surprised to learn they are looking into it.


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