NCAA hands down final ruling on Chief Illiniwek

URBANA—The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) recently issued its final ruling against the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s (UIUC) continuing use of Chief Illiniwek. Absent a change in this 80-year-old campus tradition, the NCAA will prohibit the school from hosting NCAA championship events.

UIUC Athletic Director Ron Guenther recently commented on the potential sanction.

“One of the components of the Division of Intercollegiate Athletics’ mission statement is to compete at the highest levels for Big Ten and national championships,” Guenther said. “The department has invested large amounts of resources in facilities, scholarships and coaches in our Olympic sports. The inability to host NCAA championship competition would have an unbelievably negative effect on our programs.”

A ban on hosting NCAA championship events would put Illini athletics at a competitive disadvantage, and make it hard to recruit top student-athletes and coaches.

The NCAA issued its policy banning American Indian imagery in August 2005. The University challenged the policy and the rhetoric attached to it, and has been engaged in an exhaustive, nine-month battle with the NCAA over the athletic organization’s role in dictating what traditions are acceptable and over the limits of the NCAA jurisdiction and policymaking authority.

In the first round of appeals, the University won back the right to use the names “Illini” and “Fighting Illini” for all athletic teams. Subsequent appeals continued to contest the NCAA on the allegation that the Chief tradition creates a “hostile and abusive” environment, matters of institutional autonomy and a flawed policy process.

The NCAA’s ruling makes clear the NCAA insists on having the final say.

“Our decision is final,” declared NCAA Executive Committee Chairman Walter Harrison.

“By branding an 80-year tradition ‘hostile and abusive,’ the NCAA inappropriately defames generations of Illinoisans and University of Illinois supporters,” said Lawrence C. Eppley, chairman of the University’s Board of Trustees.

UIUC has built a high-integrity, winning athletic program in which student-athletes have achieved success in both the classroom and their competitive arenas.

UIUC fields nine men’s and 10 women’s varsity sports. Several are consistently ranked in the Top 10 nationally, and regularly achieve success in NCAA championship competition.

The Illini men’s basketball team was the NCAA national title runner-up in 2005; the men’s tennis team won the NCAA national championship in 2003; men’s gymnastics, which hosted the NCAA championships in Urbana-Champaign in 2004, finished second in NCAA competition this year; women’s soccer competed in the NCAA championship Elite Eight in 2004; and men’s wrestling and women’s track and field are perennial top NCAA programs.

The campus has played host to NCAA championship events in eight different men’s and women’s sports. The men’s tennis team, currently ranked fifth in the nation, has hosted early rounds of the NCAA championship competition for eight consecutive years, and racked up a 15-1 record; site selection for rounds one and two of this year’s men’s tennis championships will soon be announced by the NCAA.

Every Illini varsity sport has advanced to NCAA championship competition over the last five years, a period in which UIUC athletic teams won national and Big Ten titles in eight different sports, and athletics brought home numerous individual NCAA and Big Ten championships.

“The University of Illinois is disappointed by the NCAA Executive Committee’s final decision to uphold a policy that is capricious in its design and implementation,” Eppley said. “The NCAA’s insistence on dictating social policy for a few select member institutions intrudes on the University of Illinois Board of Trustees’ autonomy and the Board’s process for reaching a consensus conclusion on issues regarding the Chief Illiniwek tradition. In determining a course to follow, we will consider our options in the context of the NCAA’s final pronouncement and the consensus process guidelines adopted by the Board.”

From the May 3-9, 2006, issue

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