Guest Column: NCAA, free speech and Chief Illiniwek

The NCAA has many difficult issues to wrestle with in collegiate sports—steroid use, Title IX equality, TV contracts and revenue sharing, recruitment practices, high school students going directly to the NBA after receiving a Hummer from a sports agent, to name only a few. Why then do they choose to dive headfirst into the muck of the political correctness debate over team mascots?

Whatever will they do with the state names that come from Native American words or the actual names of Native American tribes? Can they ever play a tournament in the city of “Indianapolis?” The state of Illinois is named for the tribe occupying part of the state when the first French explorers arrived. The name Illini, which translates as “men” or “people,” was first used in 1874 by the University of Illinois student newspaper as a reference to the students and alumni from Illinois—and not to an Indian tribe. No descendents of the Illini tribe are offended by the mascot, simply because there are none. In the late 1600s, every man, woman and child was brutally exterminated in by their fellow Native Americans, the Iroquois, in a war over the trade in animal pelts.

The only effect on the University of Illinois of the NCAA’s ban would be that they could not host any NCAA tournaments after Feb. 1. Their uniforms have been scrubbed clean of any references other than the word “ILLINOIS.” The University’s Chief Illiniwek—a student who dresses up in traditional Indian clothing and dances at some sporting events—hasn’t appeared away from home since 1989, when the men’s basketball team made the Final Four.

In the United States, we possess the unique gift of a Bill of Rights. The very first right is the “Freedom of Speech.” This ensures that some citizens of our country will always be offended by the speech of some other citizens. It is the only way to ensure equality of expression. It is why Holocaust survivors in the town of Skokie were treated to an American Nazi Party march in their streets. If the speech of some is to be restricted please one group, we will all lose. History shows us that it is impossible to legislate good manners.

Scott Brener is a resident of Apple River, Ill.

From the August 17-23, 2005, issue

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