Wednesday, May 4, 2016

How about a stalk of corn or a soybean as the new Fighting Illini mascot?

I’m writing this commentary on behalf of my late brother Christopher, who was a student down in Champaign, Ill., during the late 1980s and often had his own thoughts about the concept of Chief Illiniwek.

Could a new symbol be found in any of these historic university images?
For those not in the know, Illiniwek was the student (often a white kid) who dressed up as a native American in full Indian headdress who would do a half-time dance at the football and basketball games of the University of Illinois.

PROPONENTS OF THE Chief (and I actually once knew a guy who included being “the chief” as among his collegiate accomplishments) always claimed the costume he wore and the dance he did were authentic to the tribes of the Illiniwek Confederation – the people who were native to what is now Illinois before the French and English came.

They always claimed it to be a symbol of significance, and something much more dignified than Bucky Badger – the mascot of the arch-rival University of Wisconsin.

Of course, some people saw the notion of a white kid dancing about pretending to be an Indian chief as bordering on racism – almost as offensive as someone wearing blackface claiming to pay tribute to African-American people.

When the NCAA in 2005 threatened to penalize the university by taking away their ability to host post-season play (which would have been an economic loss), Illinois gave in and Illiniwek became history.

THERE ARE THOSE students with an ideological agenda who go out of their way to keep alive the image of Illiniwek (the kind of young, conservative-minded people that ideologue radio broadcaster Rush Limbaugh is depending upon to replenish his aging listeners). His very image has become a political statement.

For what it’s worth, my brother used to think Illiniwek was far from the “honored symbol” that his proponents claimed him to be. And yes, “honored symbol” is the phrase they insist MUST be used to refer to Illiniwek. My brother thought his fans were people in serious need of a date or two.

Although he also thought the people eager to oppose Illiniwek also had way too much free time on their hands. Either that, or they were using time that ought to e devoted to studying for their classes to fight a cause.

He’d wonder how they’d explain “C’s” and “D’s” on report cards that wound up in their tuition-paying parents’ hands. “I was fighting the Chief,” is perhaps what they’d say, while their parents groaned, looked skyward and questioned the point of that tuition check they had written out.

SO IT WILL be interesting to see what happens at the university, now that officials say they’re going to replace Illiniwek with the first official mascot ever of the University of Illinois.

No word on when they’ll have an image picked, or what it will be. Let’s only hope it doesn’t turn out to be something ridiculous like the tree that represents Stanford University.

Seriously, I could easily see the mascot being a giant corn stalk – for all the corn fields that comprise a significant segment of central Illinois farms. Either that, or soybeans. Who knows, maybe a giant soybean could be the Illinois mascot, with a giant container of soy milk as its companion?

This whole search for a mascot has the potential to be quite silly – particularly since Fighting Illini athletics have managed to make it through the past decade without Illiniwek or any official mascot to replace it.

IT’S NOT LIKE the presence of a costumed character will in any way enhance the quality of play on the field or court. It would take a program much more aggressive at recruiting athletes of quality from outside of rural Illinois in order to gain public attention – the reason many Chicagoans pay much more attention to their alma mater schools than the state university.

Lovie Smith as the Fighting Illini football coach is a more important move than a new mascot. Although if it turns out that Lovie brings winning ways to Champaign, then perhaps he will become the symbol of success the college is looking for.

Although I suspect many students feel there are more important things to worry about than this issue. And the ones who do find it a priority? I suspect they’re the ones having to explain the mediocre-to-low grades to their parents every semester.

Personally, I remember my own college days at Illinois Wesleyan University where we had Tommy Titan. He’s now an elaborately costumed character, although when I was a student, he was merely a chubby kid clad in a cheap gladiator-like costume. We IWU students didn’t feel any more or less enthusiasm as a result.


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