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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.)?


Should high school teams that use an Indian tribe as a mascot also be banned from continued use of the mascot? Where does the level of being "offended" end. These Native Americans, if really offended, should go after every institution that uses an "offensive" mascot, not just the college teams.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 3/08/2007 11:53 AM  

Should high school teams that use an Indian tribe as a mascot also be banned from continued use of the mascot? Where does the level of being "offended" end. These Native Americans, if really offended, should go after every institution that uses an "offensive" mascot, not just the college teams.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 3/08/2007 11:53 AM  

I think that Native Americans who oppose the team names are making a bad move. Apparently, they would prefer obscurity. They would rather be forgotten than revered, remembered and - yes - cheered for.

Team names can serve an important historical function by stirring public awareness and memory. Consider the Oklahoma Sooners, or the Tennessee Volunteers.

Of course, mascots and traditions that are intentionally demeaning should be disposed of, or better, yet reformed. Native Americans and colleges should get together and recognize that there is an opportunity here to preserve these names but to ensure that it is done in a respectful manner. The school could start a committee to improve relations with the tribe, form a secret society honoring the mascot, teach a class dedicated to the tribe's history - any of these are better than just flushing the name and trying to erase the past.

What's the alternative? If you abandon the name, teams will just choose another generic bird or cat, and in a generation or two, and most people's exposure to Sioux Indians will end with 5th grade history books.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 3/11/2007 3:24 PM  

The NCAA ban really doesn't present many interesting legal issues.

The NCAA has control of venues for its post-season events, it can control what is announced over the public address system, what appears it the official program guides and news releases, what signs appear on the playing surface and inside the venue, (with some limits on how much control they have over speech signs of fans), they can regulate what appears on playing uniforms, etc.

The historical and sociological elements are what are interesting.

Most if not all of the collegiate programs using Native American nicknames, mascots and imagery began doing so during a time period when there were surviving veterans of the open warfare between various tribes and the Federal government. That is bizzare.

An institution taking on such a name in 1930 was doing it 40 years after the Indian Wars came to a close and 23 years after the last notable conflict (a firefight in Arizona). I have a hard time imagining a school in 2013 adopting Viet Cong as a nickname. In 1985 there was no push to name teams after Hitler, Tojo, Mussolini, or use prominent symbols of Imperial Japan, facist Italy or Nazi Germany.

What the heck happened that the winners suddenly identified enough with the losers to want to incorporate that imagery?

Also interesting is the common refrain of those who oppose the usage who ask, "What would you think if a team was named _____[insert racial or ethnic slur]?". It is a hypothetical question, yet it proves a fallacy in the argument that such names are intended to be mocking or offensive. If that were the intent there are tons of slurs and groups to go after.

Why that one? I think the answer is obvious.

Those in charge weren't sitting around laughing asking who to make fun of, they were looking at names that conveyed a positive message they identified with and wanted to represent THEM. Something happened in America that changed public perception of Native Americans from dirty, godless savages, to worthy of respect.

I'd love to know what the change was.

Blogger Mark F -- 3/12/2007 2:35 PM  

since the NCAA is essentially a monopoly, does this affect the obligations of that organizations. Also, insupreme court case Dennis vs sparks it was found that a private organization can be found to be a 'statae actor" and there fore subject to 1st and 14th ammendment if a state actor 9in this case the UIUC) acts in conjunction with the private organiztion to implement the action or policy in question. this is a grey area but worth looking into??

Anonymous Anonymous -- 3/16/2007 12:05 AM  

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