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Students say ‘Boo’ to Chief Illiniwek scare tactics

Today’s column from the Kankakee Daily Journal and The (Ottawa, Ill.) Times

Students say ‘Boo’ to Chief Illiniwek scare tactics

The WISCH LIST

Oct. 23, 2010

Today is homecoming at the University of Illinois.

And, with the Illini football team a surprising 3-3, lowly Indiana limping into town and Champaign-Urbana experiencing its first swells of pigskin pride in three years, it’s been looking like a happy one.

But then the university administration had to go and complicate things.

Sigh.

You see, there’s this hot button on campus – goes by the name of Chief Illiniwek – that the school’s powers-that-wannabe just can’t seem to stop pushing.

Even when the sensible thing is to just leave it well enough alone.

For a quick refresher: In February 2007, Chief Illiniwek, U. of I.’s longtime symbol, was retired by the university under duress from the NCAA. Each autumn since, a trio of pro-Chief groups – the Students for Chief Illiniwek, the Honor the Chief Society and the Council of Chiefs (comprised of former Illiniwek portrayers) – have kept the tradition alive by holding a “Next Dance” performance at Assembly Hall featuring an “unofficial” Chief Illiniwek. The current Chief is Illinois sophomore Ivan Dozier, who is half Cherokee Indian.

This year, the Students for Chief Illiniwek again rented Assembly Hall for the “Next Dance,” scheduled for 6 p.m. this evening. However, earlier this month, the university attempted to sabotage their efforts by retaining a Chicago lawyer to threaten a trademark rights infringement lawsuit if the students went forward with the event.

Attorney Andrew L. Goldstein demanded the students stop using the words “Chief Illiniwek” on posters publicizing the event and remove from the group’s website all references to “performances or appearances by Chief Illiniwek.”

It would appear that the university considers even the name “Students for Chief Illiniwek” – a mere expression of support for a symbol – an infringement on its trademark rights. And, if that seems like a broad claim to you, then you’re not alone.

But, really, this whole thing isn’t really about trademarks, anyway. Rather, a week before Halloween, it’s about scare tactics. And they almost worked, as the students – faced with the possibility of a pricy legal fight – briefly canceled the “Next Dance” before deciding not to cave in to the university’s intimidation. The show will go on as scheduled.

The future of free speech and expression at U. of I., however, doesn’t look so hot. Although, I’m sure administrators would tell students, “You have nothing to worry about.”

(Just as long as you don’t like Chief Illiniwek.)

Meanwhile, U. of I. has plenty of bigger issues it should be concerning itself with, chiefly (ahem) its ongoing budget crisis. Yet, the university somehow finds wisdom in spending taxpayer money to hire an attorney to stifle a group of students just because their views clash with some administrators.

At least when the university opted to retire Chief Illiniwek in 2007, it had legitimate reason (the threat of NCAA sanctions). Today, though, there’s no reasonable rationale for waging war against the “Next Dance,” an event that would have stirred very few pots this weekend if the university had simply kept its thumb out.

“It really doesn’t make sense,” my friend and former Chief Illiniwek Steve Raquel said. “It’s one thing to acquiesce when the NCAA says to get the Chief off the field. But it’s another thing to want to wipe the Chief off the face of the Earth just because of political correctness. That’s a slap in the face to 80 years of tradition.”

Anyone who sits through the now-lackluster halftime show today at Memorial Stadium will clearly see that Chief Illiniwek is gone.

So why can’t the university just let him be?

  • As a proud supporter of Chief Illiniwek, and long-time critic of the NCAA, the number one reason I was excited about conference expansion was the glimmer of hope that the 64 largest universities would break away from the NCAA to form their own governing body, where there would be no political correctness or institutional control excuses.

    Long Live the Chief!

  • Nick

    “lack-luster half-time show”? I miss the Chief as much as any but I would hardly call the Marching Illini lack-luster…

  • No offense at all intended to the MI, Nick. They’re great. But since the Chief was removed, the halftime show lacks the luster it once had. There’s an enormous void that a band performance just can’t fill.