Through the Trifocals: Illinois & the NCAA

The University of Illinois has had a frustrating long-term relationship with the NCAA that may be continuing unabated. Illinisports discusses this relationship, especially how it has affected the Deon Thomas case and the Chief Illiniwek controversy, in this article. This is part XII of XIV parts.

The University of Illinois is now (2006) in its latest of several no-win situations with the NCAA. It must eliminate all Indian symbology from its merchandising and half-time shows or suffer untenable consequences thanks to an edict from the NCAA.

As background, Chief Illiniwek first appeared as a symbol of the Fighting Illini in 1926. Inspired by the Illini Indians who are now extinct, the creator designed an outfit based on Indian lore as taught by the Boy Scouts of America. Since at least 1930, a student dressed as Chief Illiniwek has danced as part of the Illini Marching Band halftime show.

The student Chiefs learned their dance from a group of Sioux Indians. It is considered a "fancy dance" original to the University of Illinois that tells a story unique for the school. One might liken a white person dressing and dancing as an Indian called Chief Illiniwek to Pat Boone singing a Negro spiritual. In both cases, the resulting product is an individualized interpretation of the original. Both these later interpretations were inspired by the love and respect for their original role models. Both served to spread the quality of the originators to groups of people who otherwise might be unaware of them.

According to the Illini Marching Band's own lore, Chief Illiniwek represented the "Spirit" of the Fighting Illini, a name first given to represent those Illini alumni who died fighting in World War I. This individual would arise from the band like a ghost from a fog. As such, Chief Illiniwek served to inspire and uplift several generations of Illini football and basketball fans and came to be revered widely. For many, the Chief was the only positive Indian role model they had ever seen. Especially for those who grew up when Westerns were popular in the movies and later on television.

Some Indians objected to the use of any Indian symbolism by non-Indians, so there has been long-term controversy over whether to continue to use Chief Illiniwek or retire him. The University of Illinois has been threatened with the loss of significant donations if it should retire the Chief, the result of widespread support for the Chief. Little by little, the anti-chief forces have made up ground on the pro-chief faction, and Illinois has been going through a painstaking process of arriving at a consensus most could tolerate.

However, this process may have been terminated before its conclusion. The NCAA formed a committee to study the use of Indian mascots on college campuses. Their conclusion is that Indian representation is "hostile and abusive" and must be stopped. If a school does not comply, it will lose any opportunity to host NCAA-sponsored events. While these events are usually limited to the so-called minor sports and appear on the surface to do little damage to a school, recruiting is guaranteed to suffer.

All athletes, regardless of their sport, wish to perfect their sport where they can have the best chance to compete against the best and win. They will prefer schools that are not limited to playing postseason tournaments on other campuses. The University of Illinois feels strongly that all sports should have ready access to all opportunities afforded other schools, so they are seriously considering eliminating the Chief to guarantee postseason opportunities for their teams.

The knee-jerk reaction of emotionally distraught fans, should the Chief be eliminated, will be to blame athletic director Ron Guenther and the U of I in general for the loss of their beloved tradition. They will try to punish the U of I with no thought to the larger implications. But perhaps clear thinkers will prefer to study the big picture, to gain a better understanding.

What we discover is that the NCAA committee formed by Myles Brand to "study" Indian symbolism on college campuses may have been stacked to arrive at a preconceived conclusion. We cannot prove this, of course, but it is true the committee chose to limit the information presented to them to that which opposed the use of Indian names, symbols or mascots.

For instance, we understand Professor Stephen Kaufmann, a leader of the anti-chief movement on campus and recipient of millions of dollars of federal research grants, was permitted to present his perspective on Chief Illiniwek to the committee. No one representing the pro-Chief position was given the same opportunity. Kaufmann and people with his thinking on the matter call Indian symbols "hostile and abusive", and the committee agreed with them.

Illinois did appeal this conclusion, and it did receive some modification of the findings by receiving notice it could continue use of the name "Fighting Illini." But the committee turned a deaf ear to any other argument. It quickly became clear the committee was determined to carry out its social engineering on college campuses and felt secure in its mandate from NCAA hierarchy.

However, in a twist some find hypocritical at best, Florida State University was permitted to retain its Seminole name and continue its practice of having a student dressed as a Seminole Indian ride his horse to the middle of the football field, to thrust his spear into the ground to declare war on the opposition. Florida State and the Seminole Indian tribe have a contract that benefits the tribe financially by allowing the continued use of their name and representation at FSU. So the NCAA concluded their Indian mascot was not "hostile and abusive" to the Seminole Indians.

However, we wonder if Charleen Teeters was asked her opinion of the FSU mascot. Charleen was one of the first to protest the use of Chief Illiniwek on the Illinois campus. Emotionally traumatized as a youth by children taunting her as a half-breed, Teeters may indeed have found Chief Illiniwek "hostile and abusive" to her. However, wouldn't she also find the Seminole mascot equally hostile and abusive? Surely, a mere financial windfall for one Indian tribe wouldn't make Charleen overcome her emotional reaction would it? We mustn't speak for Charleen, but we tend to believe her interests were served only partially and inconsistently by the NCAA's findings.

The Illini Indians no longer exist, so the University of Illinois' options are limited. They may have been able to formulate a financial contract with one or both of the Peoria and Miami tribes, the Illini tribe's closest living relatives. If done several years ago, it might have appeased the overseers at the NCAA. But even then, one is uncertain the arrangement would have met totally the criteria set down by the NCAA.

There is an unproven rumor someone from the U of I may have made contact with an Indian tribe some years ago to gauge interest in an arrangement. However, Illinois representatives long dragged their feet on doing anything proactive to help guarantee the Chief's retention, likely hoping the problem would go away over time. And they may never have been eager to share merchandising proceeds or pay a significant monetary stipend to any Indian tribe to do what it had been doing all along.

Our guess is that Illinois could have created a Native American study program on campus, provided scholarships to worthy Indians who deserved to obtain a higher education, and otherwise helped Indians still limited by life on their reservations. But would they have approached the Peoria or Miami tribe as equals or expected something for nothing? Would they have apologized for not making contact much sooner? Would they have sought to rectify their oversight with a treaty that could not be usurped or broken as so many previous Indian treaties have been in the past? One can hope that would be true, but it would be a massive leap for many at a large institution like Illinois.

Several years ago, Illinois hired Nancy Cantor as chancellor of the university. Coming from the University of Michigan, she was uncharacteristic of most UI administrators in that she was a knee-jerk Liberal rather than a Moderate-Conservative. It seemed totally out of place to see her in so important position, but her purpose may have become clear when she openly tried to eliminate the Chief. One must wonder if she was hired to serve as a lightning rod to deflect blame onto her and away from the rest of the University once the Chief was eliminated. Once she failed in her quest, she couldn't get out of town fast enough. And she was replaced by someone more typical of past administrators.

Did Myles Brand use a similar tactic by orienting his committee with members likely to eliminate Indian symbols and mascots? If so, it wouldn't be the first time he had used such indirect methods to get his way. And it would be entirely consistent with his predecessors at the NCAA.


Parts XIII & XIV will appear on IlliniBoard.com in the upcoming days.

Part I of this series is available here.
Part II of this series is available here.
Part III of this series is available here.
Part IV for this series is available here.
Part V for this series is available here.
Part VI for this series is available here.
Part VII for this series is available here.
Part VIII for this series is available here.
Part IX for this series is available here.
Part X for this series is available here.
Part XI for this series is available here.


Illini Inquirer Top Stories