Chief Illiniwek: Putting up dancing shoes

Saying their mascots must go, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) ruled against appeals of the universities of North Dakota, Indiana, Pennsylvania and Illinois and its symbol, Chief Illiniwek, last April, responding to protests asserting the schools’ mascots are “race-based” and demeaning to ethnic groups.

“The NCAA termed Chief Illiniwek as a ‘hostile and abusive’ symbol, and banned the university from hosting postseason activities as long as it continues to use the symbol,” according to

Alumni and students who have great affection for these mascots and their traditions have put tremendous pressure on the colleges’ boards of trustees in response to the protests and the ruling.

One of Illinois’ congressmen, U.S. Rep. Tim Johnson (R-15), introduced House Resolution 5289, otherwise known as the Protection of University Governance Act of 2006. The University of Illinois’ Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) campus is in Johnson’s district. He wants to protect Chief Illiniwek’s future. He’s not alone in that effort.

U.S. Rep. Donald Manzullo (R-16) joined 10 fellow lawmakers in co-sponsoring the bill. Those co-sponsors included House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-14) and U.S. Rep. Ray LaHood (R-18). According to the legislation, the bill aims “to provide institutions of higher education with a right of action against entities that improperly regulate intercollegiate sports activities.”

Rockford Area Illini Club Co-President Jim Waddell Jr. said he’s disappointed these could the Chief’s last days. Waddell said the Chief “has been a symbol and source of pride.” He said a majority of alums understand the NCAA has forced UIUC’s hand. He said many club members graduated in 1930s and 1940s, cementing a long allegiance to the Chief, and present events have affected more than them. “It’s disappointing to a lot of us,” Waddell said.

Honor The Chief Society President Howard Wakefield said the proposed law would strip the NCAA of the authority to control anything more than athletic areas. Wakefield described it as a strictly non-partisan bill. He said his 1,000-member volunteer organization, which isn’t affiliated with the university, lobbied lawmakers through a letter-writing campaign. The Illinois alum earned a bachelor’s and master’s degrees in 1952 and 1954, respectively. Wakefield later became a UIUC College of Engineering associate dean.

There’s no question he supports the Chief. But Wakefield said predicting the Board of Trustees’ stance is tough: “I think it’s a 50-50 deal,” he said. While he thinks trustees could ultimately decide the Chief’s too valuable to discard, they could succumb to NCAA pressure. According to Wakefield, NCAA sanctions include not allowing the University’s Urbana-Champaign campus to host championships. He alleged State Senate President Emil Jones would cut university funding, if the University attempted to defend the chief.

Jones’ Press Secretary Cindy Davidsmeyer denied the allegation. Davidsmeyer said Jones said nearly three years ago he would “look at” the University’s budget. She stressed he wasn’t a Chief booster: “President Jones does not support the Chief. That’s a pretty well-known fact.” Many view the chief as racist.

Despite opposition, from Jones and others, University spokesman Tom Hardy said “the expectation is that the tradition will continue.” Hardy noted the Chief’s first performance of the season was Sept. 2. While acknowledging the expectation, he said university officials understand their stance puts UIUC in non-compliance with the NCAA. According to Hardy, sanctions include being banned from hosting championship opening rounds as well as the championship games themselves on the Urbana-Champaign campus.

Hardy said he couldn’t comment on the effect on giving to UIUC, if the Chief were retired. He said any comment would clearly be speculation. While university trustees are striving to reach a consensus, they’ve not reached a decision, Hardy said. He said any guidance regarding how donations could be affected is anecdotal evidence from other institutions.

University of Illinois Alumni Association Vice President of Membership Joe Rank said the association represents alumni from all three campuses, Chicago, Springfield and Urbana-Champaign. Rank noted the Chief issue affects the largest number of University alumni, but not all of them. But he couldn’t deny the wide-ranging effect: “It’s a polarizing issue.”

He said younger alums, those who’ve graduated within the last 10 to 15 years, seem more sensitive to the Chief issue. Rank, a 1969 UIUC graduate, said some fellow older alums don’t understand the controversy. He stressed both Chief supporters and opponents want what’s best for the university and hoped institution loyalty would win out.

Go to for the pro-chief viewpoint and for the anti-chief viewpoint.

Editor & Publisher Frank Schier contributed to this article.

From the Sept. 20-26, 2006, issue

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