Sports Law Blog
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Thursday, March 08, 2007
Retiring Chief Illiniwek
The University of Illinois, in a recent move both heralded and reviled, “retired” its 81-year-old mascot “Chief Illiniwek” following the Illini’s last home basketball game of the season. In a controversy that has plagued the University of Illinois for at least the past fifteen years, administration officials finally bowed to pressure applied by the NCAA, deciding to discard the “mascot” that has represented the University since the 1920s.
Supporters of the Chief Illiniwek mascot claim that the white student that dresses in buckskin, native headdress, and face paint pays homage to American Indians in the United States and honors the history and tradition of the original Americans. American Indian groups and other opponents of Chief Illiniwek decry the student mascot as demeaning, derogatory, offensive and disrespectful to Native Americans and their traditions.
In 2005, the NCAA agreed, albeit tepidly, with opponents of American Indian mascots and demeaning imagery by barring any University that makes use of offensive, hostile or abusive American Indian images from hosting any postseason tournaments or events. Thus, the NCAA banned its member institutions from hosting postseason events if it continued to use derogatory or offensive American Indian mascots. The NCAA in so deciding, placed itself in the position of “arbiter of offensiveness” by allowing member institutions to petition the NCAA for exemption from the new policy. Several University’s successfully petitioned the NCAA to allow continued use of American Indian nicknames and logos, including the Florida State Seminoles and the University of Utah Runnin’ Utes, based in part on the local Native American tribe approval of the continued use of the mascot and image.
The University of Illinois “Fighting Illini” and the University of North Dakota “Fighting Sioux” both petitioned the NCAA for exemption and were denied based primarily on the continued derogatory imagery associated with the mascots at those schools, as well as staunch opposition to continued use by local American Indian tribes. In response to the denial of the petitions, lawsuits have been filed against the NCAA by both the University of North Dakota and by two former Illinois students who had previously portrayed Chief Illiniwek. A state district court judge in North Dakota recently entered a preliminary injunction against the NCAA allowing North Dakota to host a home playoff football game this past season. North Dakota claims that the NCAA’s ban breaches contractual relationships with its member institutions and is in violation of antitrust laws. The NCAA plans to vigorously defend its ability to regulate member institution activities. A trial has been set for December 2007.
This running controversy raises several questions of great import: First, since Tarkanian, the NCAA has been afforded nearly carte blanche authority over its member institutions. It is difficult to envision a scenario wherein the NCAA will be found to have exceeded its authority, breached contracts or violated antitrust laws in banning member institutions from hosting postseason events so long as the voluntary member institution continues to use hostile or abusive mascots or logos. Second, if American Indian citizens of the United States are in fact offended, deeply offended, by the mockery of traditions and sacred rituals, why are University administration officials fighting, literally scrapping to continue to offend American Indian citizens? Third, what difference should it make that some American Indian citizens are offended while it is well documented that other Native Americans are not bothered at all by the imagery and in fact claim to be proud of the recognition?
Some argue that the NCAA’s ban is a step in the right direction. Others suggest that the NCAA has been cowardly in not mandating an outright ban against any continued use of American Indian imagery by member institutions. This debate promises to continue for years to come.
And, what is to be made of the continued use of professional sports franchises that cling to American Indian symbols, logos, mascots and images (i.e., Atlanta Braves, Washington Redskins, Chicago Blackhawks, Kansas City Chiefs, Cleveland Indians, etc.)?