29 April 2006

Misplaced Priorities

Nobody who lives in this perspective-forsaken part of Illinois can escape what is perhaps the most inane, least worthwhile, and most emotional issue in the news: a bloody mascot.

The University of Illinois calls its team the "Illini," which perhaps isn't so offensive after all. For one thing, there really were Illini in this state at one time. The real problem is not with the team name. Instead, the problem is with the mascot, Chief Illiniwek—who bears no resemblance whatsoever to any real Native American person (or, for that matter, tribe—a couple of anthropologists have told me that Chief Illiniwek's garb is a mixture of Iroquois, Seminole/Cherokee, and pure invention). Instead, the Chief dances around like some 1920s Hollywood caricature on the sidelines and during halftime. Of course, with the exception of basketball and volleyball (the Chief doesn't appear at the latter) there hasn't been much reason to dance this century!

The NCAA—about fifty years too late—has finally shown some backbone and disapproved. The penalty is simultaneously harsh and a slap on the wrist: So long as the U of I retains Chief Illiniwek as a mascot, the U of I cannot host NCAA post-season events. Although the University, and some Chief boosters, have continued to insist for years that there's nothing "offensive" about the Chief, the NCAA rejected the University's appeals. What this really reflects, more than anything else, is an abysmal loss of perspective by everybody involved.

  • Consider, first of all, that this is for an extracurricular activity. Sport is not the primary mission of this university (although many of the townies seem to think so). The University has no business putting its weight behind a struggle by the athletic department. And, by the way, the head football coach of a team that hasn't won more than half of its games this century makes three times as much as the Chancellor.
  • The local community considers the University of Illinois athletic programs "theirs" at least as much as Manchester United fans consider the Red Devils to be "theirs." Perhaps there is more reason to do so, as the University of Illinois is by far the region's largest employer. The real problem, though, is that so few of the alumni who have remained in the community, but are not professionally affiliated with it, care; it's those who do not have that background, as a group, who seem most interested.
  • Combine this with the corruption inherent in Division I athletics. Or, unless you have a really strong stomach, don't. With only very rare exceptions—all in "non-revenue" sports, and not even all of them—NCAA Division I is nothing more nor less than minor-league pro ball (or puck, or whatever). Pretending otherwise is intellectual dishonesty inappropriate to an institution of higher education.
  • And, on top of it all, it's not the team nickname that's at issue. It's the bloody mascot. Get a life, everybody! It's bad enough that the University won't change mascots (that doesn't seem to have hurt Stanford's image too much); but the NCAA is putting its dubious prestige and no-room-for-compromise enforcement mechanism behind this instead of dealing with the culture that made the Duke Lacrosse incident possible. Without that culture, there would be less incentive for anyone (athlete or accuser) to lie.

I'd prefer "Dead Voters" or "Soy Avengers" as more-accurate representations of this state's culture and history, but nobody's listening to me. In the meantime, dump the Chief. It's a battle that's not worth fighting, although that's not something that either the University of Illinois or the state as a whole has a very good history of recognizing.