Champaign-Urbana, IL, 2011 — When I first arrived at the University of Illinois as a new Ph.D. student in 2009, I had no opinion about the retired mascot nor did I really care. Like many people it was inconceivable to me that something as frivolous as a school mascot could inspire the tornado of anger, threats and controversy that I now realize is taken for granted in Champaign-Urbana. It was confusing to see the plains-esque iconography in a region where the native indigenous peoples had never worn war bonnets. My own native indigenous heritage is not from either region so the icon itself didn’t come across to me as offensive, but it did strike me as very odd and definitely stereotypic. It wasn’t until I saw some footage of the personified mascot performing and effigy lynching and burning performed by opposing teams that I understood the offensive nature of the performance and symbolism inherent in the situation.
In 2005 the NCAA required multiple universities to retire mascots deemed offensive and disrespectful in order to continue to be included in the Pac 10. The University of Illinois was one of them. Currently the University of Illinois has no mascot, no unifying symbol besides a Times-Roman capital letter “I”. Sure, there are people who still print and perpetuate the past mascot (a trademark infringement the University then is obligated to take costly legal action against), but officially there is no mascot. No unifying symbol to bring 40,000 students of varying ages, socio-economic backgrounds, cultures, countries and interests together. No face to relate to, no icon to market and wear proudly. I wonder how much income the UofI is losing by not having a popular mascot?
Alumni and Champaign-Urbana community members were the strongest and most vocal source of resistance in the University of Illinois mascot retirement debate. Individual alumni and multiple alumni associations have threatened to remove financial support if the retired mascot is replaced. Six years later U of I students are graduating without ever having a mascot. We, the actual students, have been denied even the opportunity to form similar feelings of pride and passion for our academic institution. Through no fault of our own, and without our consent, the past mascot was retired. No one is stopping alumni from fondly remembering their alma mater and “college days” mascot. Why are the current students forced to doubly suffer the lack of having a mascot and the rancor of useless posturing and protests?
Personally, I feel like a Vietnam or Gulf War veteran sometimes. Day after day I battle the relentless onslaught of lectures, chapter reading, paper writing and exams. After putting in a tour of duty, I thankfully go to the stadium for some well earned R&R, someplace safe where I will be welcomed and know that I “belong”. Only to be met by picket lines and protestors and a confusion of suspicious cliques. The fans wearing “Chief” paraphernalia shun those who do not, assuming they must be “anti-Chief.” Other fans have formed a group around a giant orange fuzzy ball and seem to be some sort of “Orange Krush” secret society, how can I get in? Entire sections of the stadium are filled with people wearing orange and others with people wearing blue and still another with people from the opposing team… or are they from my team? All I know is they all seem happy over there, and in the orange and blue striped sections there is a definite feeling of unrest.
A mascot is ultimately supposed to be a symbol of luck, something to rally behind and bring people together. There is a new registered student organization at the University of Illinois who call themselves, “Students4aNEWmascot,” (the “new” part is superfluous since there actually is no mascot right now) and they are organizing an art contest that anyone can enter to ameliorate the situation. Champaign-Urbana community members, students, and alumni are being invited and encouraged to vote on the top 5 artistic entries that meet NCAA guidelines.
Student organization members see the adoption of a new mascot as an important first step toward moving past the past mascot controversy. They recognize that the past mascot will always be a part of the University of Illinois’ history. Some of the Students4aNEWmascot members even feel that the past mascot was appropriate and respectful, while others do not; however all of them agree that a new mascot is needed for the present and future.
What difference can a mascot make? I would argue that a “new” mascot for the University of Illinois could make significant and lasting differences in the campus and community climates and financial stability.