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 XIII of XIV parts.

The NCAA is not run by Liberals like Stephen Kaufmann or Nancy Cantor. Indeed, the opposite is true. So why would they hand-pick a committee that followed the Liberal position? What possible motives could they have? What was their secret agenda? Was it as simple as financial gains and losses? Did they wish to pass the blame onto Liberal representatives to deflect blame from themselves, like Illinois may have done with Cantor?

It would be unnecessarily paranoid to believe it has something to do with a desire to punish Illinois since other schools are also involved. But one thing is certain, the decision creates new friction between the University of Illinois and the NCAA. After all, the long-term relationship between Illinois and the NCAA is frought with conflicts and no-win scenarios.

In 1980, quarterback Dave Wilson transferred to Illinois from a California junior college and sought to gain immediate eligibility after having to sit out one season of JC ball. Without discussing particulars, a lawyer representing the University of Illinois made a comment in the hearing that demonstrated a favoritism toward Wilson's position despite being a co-defendent with Big Ten/NCAA. He was just trying to be fair, but his behavior was not appreciated or forgotten by the NCAA.

So let's count the long list of embarrassments the NCAA may have compiled against Illinois, the school that won't play the game expected of them. Besides several investigations that proved illegalities and some that didn't, we must include the Dave Wilson case, firing Mike Slive, fighting the charges in the Deon Thomas case, the actions of the "Our Group" (a biggie even though they were not connected directly with the U of I), and appealing the Chief issue. And now we have one more as well.

In a decision that is completely self-serving and political even though it is likely constitutional based on its merits, U. S. Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, from Yorkville, Illinois, and Illinois alum and Representative Tim Johnson have sponsored a bill in the House of Representatives to limit the ability of the NCAA to legislate against issues such as the Indian mascot controversy. The immediate purpose is to stop the NCAA from imposing its will on Chief Illiniwek and other similar situations around the country.

It may indeed be outside the perview of the NCAA, but the United States Supreme Court has long supported the notion the NCAA is a "voluntary organization." As such, it should be entitled to set whatever limits it chooses on its membership since they have the freedom to withdraw membership at any time (We could also argue U. S. citizenship is voluntary so the Constitution and Bill of Rights don't apply to us, but of course they do apply to individual citizens regardless). It is highly unlikely in this view to expect a different conclusion for the Chief controversy.

There is nowhere Illinois can go outside the NCAA, so their membership is not entirely voluntary. One could argue Illinois could enlist other schools to form a new organization to compete with the NCAA. But without support from the "elite" athletic schools who are making a bundle of cash off their involvement with the NCAA and would never consider leaving, and without large television and radio contracts, Illinois would be relegated to competing athletically with the University of North Dakota Fighting Sioux and a few other mostly small renegade schools. This would be untenable for the University of Illinois and would never be considered.

And frankly, Illinois likely has mixed emotions about such legislation. If the Hastert/Johnson bill were to set a precedent and be supported by the U. S. Supreme Court, it would call into question myriad other rulings that have given colleges special privileges not permitted by the U. S. Constitution and Bill of Rights. For instance, just like the NCAA, Illinois has always been permitted to fire nontenured faculty subjectively and without legitimate cause or due process.

A number of highly qualified academics and support staff have been fired or denied tenure over the years using the exact same methods employed by the NCAA. UI administrators, as probably is true at all colleges and universities, have threatened against hiring legal assistance and have promised to outspend and outlast any law suit. They have allowed the creation of kangaroo courts to endorse the wishes of the administrator doing the firing and have prevented those unjustly accused from facing their accuser, seeing all the charges against them, or receiving a fair hearing. Even though they guarantee an appeal process, someone with enough political clout within the university can overrule and stop the appeal at any time.

It is hard for some to imagine how any of this could be possible in a democracy. But if you have enough money and political clout, you can arrange exceptions that allow you to operate outside the laws that limit the average citizen. Most corporations, institutions, organizations and governing bodies have thrived through this system despite its obvious hypocrisy, and few if any wish to see it changed.

If Hastert and Johnson or other congressmen ever want to eliminate inequity in this matter, they might create legislation that would end ALL "hostile and abusive" Indian representations. This would require professional sports teams like the Washington Redskins, Cleveland Indians, Chicago Black Hawks, and Atlanta Braves with their "Tomahawk Chop" to change their names. Those who believe Indian symbols and mascots are deleterous to Native Americans have always seemed hypocritical for attacking schools while ignoring the wealthy professional teams who are completely insensitive to their needs.

Ironically and sadly, the inevitable Chief Illiniwek termination will probably hurt the cause of Native Americans even more than the University of Illinois. Distraught fans will eventually calm down, either because they have forgiven and moved on, or because they choose to block it from their memories. Any initial loss of donations will likely be overcome with diligent fund raising. And life will resume, although with one less symbol to open one's heart and uplift one's spirit. And with one less chance for non Indians to experience something positive about our original Americans, no matter how contrived it might have seemed to some.

Indians will find themselves more separated from everyone else. They may like this idea at first, being able to practice their religions in privacy without seeing their rituals cariacaturized by non Indians who may be insensitive to Indian emotions. But there will be a backlash against them that will isolate them further.

We truly encourage all Illini fans to rise above pettiness and vindictiveness and respect the needs of Native Americans. But we all know this will be difficult for many and impossible for some. It almost feels like we are forcing Indians back onto reservations away from their true homelands. For isolation and separation make for lonely and limiting lives, regardless of their location.

There may not have been much opportunity for benefits like academic scholarships or expanded Native American study programs at the UI in the past. But there will be even less likelihood of this occurring in the future. Even if those benefits had been offered without sincerity and empathy, perhaps it is better to receive a little of something than a lot of nothing. There will be no motivation at all for the UI to spend money when there is little reward for them in return. Ultimately, everyone may feel like they have lost something in the process.

It is highly unlikely the Hastert/Johnson bill will pass. Their constituents will bless them for their effort and support them at the polls, but the Chief will be gone nonetheless. In the meantime, the NCAA will add another mark against Illinois to its already long list. One can argue the U of I didn't submit the bill to Congress, but the NCAA knows Illinois did not prevent its inception. That is a direct insult to NCAA hierarchy, and it is not in their nature to forget.

Part XIV will appear on 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.
Part XII for this series is available here.

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