Wednesday, February 21, 2007


In the most important achievement of his tenure as head of the NCAA, Myles Brand has succeeded in eradicating a Native American mascot. And he didn't even need firewater to do it.

CHAMPAIGN -- As cameras flashed and students cried, University of Illinois' controversial mascot Chief Illiniwek burst onto the basketball court Wednesday night for his final, 3-minute dance.
He left, then returned for a solemn curtain call, standing tall as he raised his arms and turned to each section. Then he gave one final kick and left Assembly Hall, the end to an 81-year-old, tradition.
Though the chief has been surrounded by intensifying unhappiness over the last few years, the subject of threats and lawsuits and NCAA sanctions against the university, Wednesday's finale in front of a noisy pro-chief crowd was a nostalgic lovefest.
"To have him gone is like losing a family member," said Jen Suerth, a graduate student, who was crying and shaking as she lined up courtside with other students. "It will never be the same again." ...
Hundreds of students immediately swapped their orange shirts for black ones, a signal of protest and mourning. Another planned protest, a walkout, never materialized.
"I remember watching the chief as a little kid. I used to say I wanted to be the chief," said Dan Shike, a graduate student who changed into black and also put his 9-month-old daughter, Olivia, into a black shirt. ...
"We want to honor the chief for all he's done for 80 years. We stand behind the chief until the end," Brown said. ...
With the end of Wednesday's game, the NCAA was expected to lift sanctions it levied after ruling that the chief's portrayal of Native Americans was "hostile and abusive." That will allow the university to host postseason athletic competition, including next month's NIT basketball event if the team is in that tournament. ...
Scott Christensen, who portrayed the chief from 1981 to 1983, traveled from his home in New Hampshire to see the chief's last dance.
"This is painful. This is very, very difficult for us," he said. "My 12-year-old said this morning, 'I wish I was going.' I said, 'I wish I wasn't.'"

Was infected with smallpox for finale.

Granted, I think the guy who seems to believe it's been the same chief for the last 80 years is kind of creepy. But let's set that aside for a moment to ask a critically important question.

What, exactly, has been accomplished here?

Unless you believe the sight of a student dancing in Native American costumes is going to lead someone to think, "You know, I haven't firebombed an Indian reservation lately," the whole exercise has been, No. 1, a waste of time and, No. 2, a symbolic gesture under duress that does nothing to promote tolerance or understanding.

A brief autobiographical story here.

I used to be a supporter of the Confederate flag that flew over the South Carolina Statehouse. I was young and impressionable and hadn't entirely thought about how other people viewed it. It was through hearing from those people and their supporters that I came to see that the flag had no place flying atop an official state building.

Now, the flag has been moved to what some people say is a more visible place on the Capitol grounds. But, even if it had been taken down and put somewhere else entirely, I doubt it would have changed one person's mind or one person's heart. The debate did that for me -- not the fact that the flag was moved. And, more than anything, it reconciled what I already believed in -- harmony -- with my opinion on that specific issue. It wasn't like I was a Klansman before I changed my mind on the flag.

Now, I personally don't see Chief Illiniwek as any more racist than -- and I hesitate to say this, for fear I might give someone an idea -- the Irish mascot for Notre Dame. "Oh look, he's got a red beard. And he's dancing a jig. How delightfully stereotypical!"

My point, though, is that forcing the university to get rid of Illiniwek, with the "reward" of hosting an NIT game being offered in return, won't change a single person's mind about Native Americans. Not one.

There are so many serious issues to tackle in college athletics, from academics to recruiting issues to which computer geek should get to choose the national champion.

Is this really what we want to be spending our time on?

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