Dancing in the shadows

By Matt Stacionis

He’s been the University of Illinois’ key basketball figure for the past couple weeks.

He’s covered the front page of nearly every major sports section in the Chicago area, and no matter what, his name just won’t die. Even after the Illini were eliminated from the Big Ten Basketball Tournament, a controversy hung as high over him as a Cory Bradford 3-pointer. It was twice as deadly, too.

It seemed like no matter what Illinois did over the past couple of weeks, they just couldn’t shake the shadows of Chief Illiniwek.

A staple since 1926, the Chief was retained by a judge and the University of Illinois Board of Trustees last week, but the controversy, much like the men’s basketball team, still is hanging around and waiting for a little more action.

The minority group of 176 organizations, led by U of I biology professor Stephen Kaufman, wants the Chief out, claiming the mascot promotes racism. If true, then so does the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Not to mention, the Cleveland Indians, Atlanta Braves, Washington Redskins and Montreal Canadians and the hundreds of high school and college sports teams, with equally toned nicknames.

And although fans of the Chief also have come out in support of their spirit leader and a judge has issued a pro-Chief verdict, Kaufman isn’t rolling over just yet.

Daily Illini sports editor Allison Deitch said that a concern came when Kaufman said he was going to talk to basketball recruits and express his disgust with the mascot. Not only does this violate NCAA rule, but it is also none of his business. Unless incoming recruits have a question about cell and structural biology & the area in which Kaufman specializes & he has no need to talk to them. He also called Oklahoma head coach Kelvin Sampson, who is part Native American, when he was a candidate for the Illinois coaching job this summer. He’s still at Oklahoma.

Kaufman and other supporters do have the right to disagree with what the Chief stands for, but they don’t need to bring that in front of a basketball game. The team has made it to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1989 — the year which Kendall Gill, Nick Anderson and NIU transfer Kenny Battle led the Illini to a Final Four appearance. Anti-Chief supporters lined the United Center during the Big Ten Tournament. A back-page story also appeared about Kaufman on the Chicago Sun-Times the day before the tournament was ready to begin, which had to have been a distraction to the players.

“I wouldn’t say taking away,” Deitch said. “It has been a different subject. The media in Chicago has thought that it has taken away, but down here I would say no. So many people are in favor of it. The vast majority of the campus supports it. When the results of the Chief dialogue came out most of the comments were in favor of the chief. The BOT, all but two, came out for the Chief.”

Deitch also said that the issue has been placed at the forefront as a student issue on the UI campus.

“It’s a good campus issue,” she added. “It’s a constant presence. We get e-mails about it all the time, and a lot of our columnists have written about it. The Chief dialog took up most of the paper. [But] I wouldn’t say that it reaches our everyday life.”

But as long as Illinois are winning, how many people will lose interest in the Chief?

“If you’re a basketball fan, yeah, it’s definitely bigger than the Chief,” Deitch said. “A lot of people are concerned more with the team. I think the team, the players themselves, don’t care at all. Although, when the professor said he was going to start talking to recruits — that would get in the way of the quality of the basketball team.”

The Peoria Tribe — direct descendants of the Illini Tribe — approved the use of the Chief by the University in 1995.

“To say that we are anything but proud to have these portrayals would be completely wrong,” Peoria tribe leader Chief Giles said in a 1995 interview with WICD. “We’re proud that the University of Illinois is the major institution in the state, a seat of learning, and they are drawing on that background of our having been there. And what more honor could they pay us?”

The interview also quoted an official of the same tribe saying it was an honor to be the mascot of the University of Illinois, and that since they are the only direct descendants of the Illini, their opinion should carry the most weight.

On April 20, 2000, the chief and company were singing a different tune after the Dialogue Intake Session of April 14, 2000, when the Peoria Tribe passed a resolution by a vote of 3 to 2 requesting that the University cease the use of Chief Illiniwek.

The Chief belongs at the University of Illinois. Changing a 77-year identity because of the small outcry of a few isn’t something that sounds very important.

Kaufman told the Chicago Sun Times that the Chief was “an embarrassment.” So is someone who doesn’t think NCAA rules apply to them, now isn’t it?