Friday, May 12, 2006

Options running out for U of I's Chief Illiniwek (Crain's Chicago Business)

Options running out for U of I's Chief Illiniwek
By Paul Merrion
May 12, 2006
The highly-ranked University of Illinois men’s tennis team takes to the courts today for the first round of regional championships without the home court advantage it’s enjoyed for the last few years.
That’s the first tangible impact of the latest and possibly final chapter in the long-running Chief Illiniwek controversy, which forced Team Illini, ranked eighth in the nation, to travel to 33rd-ranked University of Kentucky for the playoffs this weekend.
As the top regional seed, Illinois would have hosted the regional championship at its Champaign-Urbana campus, as it has for the last seven years, if not for Chief Illiniwek, confirms a spokesman for the National Collegiate Athletic Assn.
“The NCAA has the authority to insure that its championships are conducted in atmosphere free of racial stereotyping,” adds the spokesman for the NCAA, which issued a final decision April 28 banning schools with Indian mascots from hosting post-season play.
After almost two decades of controversy, the endgame is near for the 80-year tradition of Chief Illiniwek, a student in American Indian regalia who appears at football, basketball and men’s volleyball games.
With the powerful support of House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, R-Plano, a bill pending in the U.S. House of Representatives would give the university clearer legal standing to sue the NCAA and collect damages for lost revenues and legal costs.
However, a legislative remedy is considered a long shot, and the university isn’t pushing for it. Yet, if signed into law, a university spokesman says, “we would welcome the opportunity to restore our institutional autonomy.”
With time running out before the chief’s next scheduled appearance September 2 at the first home football game, the university is down to three unpalatable options.
It can sue the NCAA, which would be costly and time-consuming, with no guarantee of the outcome. Meanwhile, however, the sanctions against hosting post-season play would remain in effect.
It can refuse to comply, foregoing the status, revenues and competitive advantage associated with hosting playoff games. But that also “sends a bad message,” a university spokesman says, making it harder to recruit athletes and coaches.
Or, the university can do something to change the status quo, “something to be determined,” adds the U of I spokesman. “There could be an honorable retirement of the Chief tradition, or a changing of how the Chief tradition is conducted.”
To some, an Indian mascot is ethnically insensitive at best, or even a racist symbol of oppression. To others, Chief Illiniwek is an honored tradition and a revered symbol of the university.
Despite student-led efforts to retire the Chief and opposition from the National Coalition on Racism in Sports and Media, university trustees resisted the move and appealed last year’s decision by the NCAA to blacklist schools with Indian mascots, a decision that is now final.
University trustees met this week but the Chief’s fate was not scheduled to be on the agenda. A decision is more likely to be made this summer.
“The NCAA appears to have a gun to our head,” the university spokesman says. Some say “fight ‘em, create a legal defense fund, but I haven’t sensed the kind of intensity there was a few years ago.”


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