That Same Old Song and Dance

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Here we are once again, talking about the
chief. You know who I mean. Not the fire
chief, not the police chief, but our own dearlyinvented,
unfailingly-controversial, nationalcelebrity,
real live imaginary Indian chief. It
just goes on and on—the story of the two
towns, the buckskin gown, the two Dee
Browns, and the halftime dancer with the multiple
million-dollar frown. Will it ever end?
On April 28, 2006, the Executive Committee
of the NCAA, the membership organization
that governs college sports, turned down
an appeal by the University of Illinois to keep
the sports symbol of its Champaign-Urbana
campus teams. UIUC is now out of compliance
with the NCAA and ineligible to host
post-season events.
Athletic Director Ron Guenther immediately
said the ruling would have an “unbelievably
negative effect” on the sports program.
Chief fans criticized Guenther as defeatist.
Chairman of the Board of Trustees Lawrence
Eppley backed Guenther in a commentary in
the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette on May
7. The commentary ended, “I value Ron’s
counsel and commitment to excellence in Illini
athletics. All loyal Illini do.”
In contrast, Eppley never issued one word
of support for Nancy Cantor, Chancellor of the
campus from 2001 to 2004, when she was
attacked day after day in letters to the editor,
state-wide billboards, and on local talk radio
for saying that an inclusive campus was her
For the past ten years, UIUC has
paid a huge price to keep the
chief—millions of dollars in cash
and wasted resources, a divided
student body, disaffected faculty,
painful tensions on campus,
especially for the few Native students,
declining respect from academic
peers, contradictions between
its mission to diversity and reality, compromised
integrity. The school’s leadership
was willing to pay all those prices, although
any one seemed exorbitant to many of us.
But now, the price is even higher, and
probably, finally, just too high: the sports program
will suff e r. The men’s tennis team,
although they have little connection to the
chief, could not host championship events this
year. Trying to compete while out of compliance
with NCAA regulations is like trying to
play basketball in lead shoes. The other teams
are bound to win. They’ll recruit the most
competitive athletes and coaches and the consequences
will be felt for years.
Aside from Guenther’s real-politik, the
response of boosters has been indignation at
the big bad NCAA, which they say has overstepped
its bounds, and lots of chest-thumping
about local control. Governor Rod Blagojevich
commented that the NCAA was “out of line”
and Eppley said, “The NCAA’s insistence on
dictating social policy for a few select member
institutions intrudes on the University of Illinois
Board of Tr u s t e e s ’ autonomy…”
Jumping into the breach, Representative
Tim Johnson and House Speaker Dennis
Hastert introduced a bill in Congress that
would limit the NCAA’s ability to sanction
schools because of their mascots or team
names. Late-night comedians are probably
sending them flowers.
Their bill is called the “Protection of University
Governance Act of 2006.” T h r e e
Democrats also co-sponsored, proving that
grandstanding for political gain and stupidity
are non-partisan. At this particular moment in
history, the Speaker of the House introducing
a law protecting universities from overactive
surveillance by the NCAA is some kind of
tragic chutzpah.
It’s also a surprise that Johnson is now
committed to protecting university autonomy.
He took the opposite position in 1995 when he
thought the university might retire the chief,
sponsoring a bill in the Illinois state legislature
to overstep the university’s authority. He
did this against the wishes of university leaders
who considered it a dangerous precedent.
After introducing HR 5289 to Congress,
Johnson commented that the NCAA should
“leave the social engineering to others.” Roger
Huddleston, a sports booster and pro-chief
activist, said recently, “The Chief is not the
issue, as much as I love the Chief. This is
about right of self-determination.”
The comments about social policy, social
engineering, and local control recall the
rhetoric of the States’ Rights Dixiecrats in
1948. These southern politicians left the
Democratic Party because of President Truman’s
civil rights agenda, which included
anti-poll tax and anti-lynching legislation. The
keynote speaker at the States’ Rights convention,
Frank Dixon, accused Truman of “trying
to enforce a social revolution in the South.”
Strom Thurmond, the States’ Rights candidate
for President, urged southerners to fight for
local self-government so they could keep
white rule. He frequently said the issue was
not so much civil rights as constitutional
states’ rights. It’s the same old song and dance.
The NCAA Executive Committee decision
is final and won’t change no
matter how much Illinois politicians
threaten. As for overstepping
its bounds, the NCAA
exists to govern college sports.
This is why UIUC belongs—so
that the teams they compete
against train and recruit under the
same rules they do. By enforcing Title IX,
the NCAA has engineered a social revolution—
pre-Title IX my high school didn’t have
sports teams for girls!
TheNCAAhas “core values” which include
a strong commitment to diversity and inclusiveness,
demonstrated through hundreds of
programs that promote gender and racial equity
for athletes, coaches, staff, and fans. The mascot
policy makes explicit that this commitment
extends to Native Americans and creates consequences
for schools that refuse to comply.
UIUC has chosen to keep its students, fans,
and alumni in the dark about the true nature of
the opposition to Chief Illiniwek. The repeated
requests for retirement of the logo and performance
from Native alumni, national Native
leaders, and the Peoria Tribe of Oklahoma, the
legitimate descendants of the Illinois tribes,
never appear in the alumni magazine. Nor do
the criticisms of the civil rights community,
including recent honorary degree recipient
Julian Bond. Alumni don’t realize that Chief
Illiniwek downgrades the prestige of their
school and the value of their degree. Years of
denial and secrecy make the university’s job
harder now.
UIUC was lucky to keep the team name
“Fighting Illini.” It’s a gift from the Peoria
Tribe and the NCAA. A little gratitude would
be in order. The NCAA u rged Illinois to educate
its fans about the new meaning of “Illini”
to ensure they understand it is not a reference to
any living, historical, or imaginary Indian tribe.
A savvy public relations campaign is essential
– picture Dee Brown, the one in the orange
headband, talking about respect. Why not
remind alums that Illinois was also the home of
the other Dee Brown, who re-wrote A m e r i c a n
history to include a Native point of view?
No one can dictate to fans what they can
wear nor what they can do at private parties.But
when pro-Chief fanatics pressure the university
to keep the chief at any cost, they are working
against the best interests of both the Illinois
sports program and the university as a whole.
If the symbol is retired it will be a relief.
But I don’t see anything to celebrate. The university
hasn’t acknowledged this as a civil
rights issue. If UIUC does retire the logo and
performance, it will be because it was forced
to by the only outside institution with a big
enough stick.
I’ve often said that the trustees should have
consulted some mothers. The question I would
put to them is: if you have to pull a band-aid
off a kid’s skin and you know it will hurt, will
it hurt LESS if you do it really, really slowly?
Say, take about 15 years?
My unscientific sample of mothers all
responded, “NO! It will become an obsession
and the kid will think about the band-aid all the
time. Rip it off and go for ice cream.” But
o b v i o u s l y, the Illinois politicos never asked us.
The fact that this issue has been allowed to
fester for so long and do so much damage
demonstrates that the University of Illinois
has serious governance and leadership problems.
Former President of the University of
Illinois and of the American Council of Higher
Education Stanley Ikenberry has called for
reform in the way the trustees are selected. A
larger board, selected in more diverse ways,
would probably have shown more effective
leadership and might not have been hamstrung
by political conflicts of interest.
So whether you’re town, gown, a fan of
both or either Dee Browns, if you care about
UIUC, tell the Governor it’s time to RETIRE
and REUNITE over a very large order of blue
and orange ice cream. For genuine “Protection
of University Governance,” help start a movement
for governance reform. And don’t vote
for a Congressperson that wastes our time
playing Dixiecrat.
Carol Spindel is a lecturer in English at the
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
She is the author of Dancing at Halftime:
Sports and the Controversy Over American
Indian Mascots.

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