Monday, August 22, 2005

Fighting Illini and the Chief

It has been a while since I have posted--combination of being on vacation, swamped at work, great posts by Chief, etc--but I have had a lot of time to think about the recent ruling that came down from the NCAA regarding what they consider to be "hostile" and/or "abusive" nicknames, mascots, etc. at member universities.

If you missed the details on this ruling, click here for the press release. Yesterday, there was a Tribune article that I found to be of great interest. The article is regarding a letter to the editor that the Chairman of the University of Illinois Board of Trustees wrote in response to Myles Brand's (the current NCAA President) commentary on the decision in the USA Today newspaper. You can find the Tribune article here. I feel the Board Chairman does an excellent job in his response and appreciate that he took the time to respond to Myles Brand.

BEGIN SIDE NOTE--Myles Brand couldn't even run Indiana University and is most famous for his encounters and dealings with a certain basketball coach that is now at Texas Tech. Perhaps someone needs to investigate how he became president of the NCAA and recently had his contract extended. It's ridiculous.--END SIDE NOTE.

Apparently, the NCAA is taking a lot of heat over this decision, as you can read in this Fox News web article. I would dare say that Myles Brand is even trying to take the heat off himself and direct it elsewhere as he conveniently seems to back away from taking any responsibility for the decision (this was his editorial that Illinois' Board Chairman responded to).

As I mentioned, I've had some time to reflect on the ruling and I have some thoughts I would like to share. First, as I am sure all of our readers know, Chief (as evidenced by his screen name) and I are both firm supporters of the name Fighting Illini and the Chief. My focus in the following is primarily the Chief. I think the suggestion that Fighting Illini is "hostile" and "abusive" is just so completely over the top political correctness run amok that it is not even worth discussing. However, I think the Chief is where most people have the biggest disagreeemnt on when it comes to the University of Illinois. There are thousands of very smart and reasonable people on both sides of the Chief issue (and some not so smart and unreasonable ones as well) so I am not going to rehash all the pro-Chief/anti-Chief arguments that are out there. What follows are the observations and experiences I have from having been a student at Illinois in the relatively recent past.

First, let me state that I am not Native American. While I believe one of my great grandmother's did have some Indian heritage, I am clearly not Native American and have not been in their shoes. However, I have great respect for Native American culture and have always found their history to be of great interest. That being said, I obviously cannot provide a Native American perspective on this issue. From what I have read, however, there is a lot of debate within the Native American tribes on this same issue that we are currently discussing.

The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary definites a mascot as being "a person, animal, or object adopted by a group as a symbolic figure especially to bring them good luck." By that definition, then I think you could safely say that every school has a mascot and the Chief would be included in this definition. However, the Chief is not your typical so-called "mascot." I would imagine that if you asked the average person, what a mascot is, they would give you the school's team name and mention that it is typically someone dressed up in some type of costume who goes around and acts silly, fights (mockingly) with the other school's mascot, jokes with the cheerleaders or band, takes pictures with fans, etc., etc.

The Chief does none of these things. I would argue that the Chief serves much more as a symbol than as a mascot. He only appears at halftime of home football and basketball games, does a dance, and stands there as the fans sing the "Alma Mater (Hail to the Orange)." He is greeted with respect and departs reverantly. He does not attend other functions such as student parties, alumni events, etc. He is not a caricature, such as Chief Wahoo (sp?) of the Cleveland Indian's was. He does not do the Tomahawk Chop that is so popular at Atlanta's Turner Field. As for the outfit he wears and the dance he performs, you can find some excellent information on these two things as well as the Chief's history, background, and tradition on the links provided on our blog under Chief Illiniwek. I simply don't have the time or the space to cover it here. In addition, the student who is selected to serve as the Chief, goes through a formal selection process and then has set protocols that must be followed when serving in that capacity.

As a student at Illinois, I never saw the Chief treated with anything but respect and honor by students, fans, and alumni. In fact, if the Chief was ever treated disrespectfully, it was by the few protestors who occasionally would show up at games and stand outside the stadium with various signs, pictures, etc. Let me note as well, that from my recollection, the protestors that did show up were not groups of Native Americans. Don't get me wrong, the people that chose to protest certainly had the right to do so in the manner of their choosing as long as they follow the law. But let's be clear, these protestors were vocal but not substantial in number. In repeated votes, the student body stronglyly supported the Chief.

WWhile I cannot speak for other schools, Illinois has studied this issue in great detail and how to handle it is Illinois' decision to make. NCAA representatives may not agree with the decision personally, but it is the University's choice and trying to force them to change through this action serves only to make it more difficult to have a constructive dialogue on this issue. I think the best comparison of their action would be to a states rights issue. In this case the NCAA (federal government) is stepping on the rights of the University (state government).

Perhaps there are changes that could and/or should be made at Illinois or other universities named by the NCAA in their ruling. However, I think it would be very sad and disappointing if Illinois were to eliminate the name Fighting Illini and the Chief. To me, both speak to the history and heritage of our proud state and a proud univeristy. We should not eliminate all references to Indian heritage and culture but instead work to inform and educate people about it. We should seek to learn more about Native American history and culture, not less. Illinitalk would fully support anything that would make the Chief more authentic, including changes to his dress, dance, etc. In additon we would support the creation of an education program at the University in which all students would learn about the Indian Tribes that lived in Illinois. We truly believe there is a solution that can be found that addresses the concerns that have been raised without eliminating the Chief and the Fighting Illini name.

Mike Downey wrote a column for the Tribune last week supporting the NCAA decision. Unfortunately, he adopts many of the anti-Chief and anti-Fighting Illini arguments and chooses to make comparisons that I do not believe are reflective of the situation at Illinois. I am having a hard time understanding his perspective because prior to this, he wrote a column in which he seeming made fun of the NCAA's decision while also supporting it. Strange.

I give him credit for tackling this sensitive issue but wonder how much time he invested in researching the situation before penning his opinion. He challenges our state leaders to join the Illini debate but he clearly wants to hear them say that they agree with him. Should any of our state's leaders respond to his challenge, I truly hope they will have considered this issue with an open mind and will have studied the history associated with it. They may agree with Mr. Downey. They may agree with me. But I hope that however they choose to respond, they will do it in a manner that is fair and does not take the easy way out. They must exhibit leadership in finding a solution to this challenging issue that will honor and respect Native Americans but does not eliminate them from our history and culture.

Until later, I proudly say Go Illini!

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