March Mascot Madness

By Terry Keleher Mar 09, 2007

The use of racist mascots in sports at all levels is a continuing saga. But the climate is shifting, thanks to years of active resistance on many fronts, reaching enough critical mass to help rewrite some of the rules of the game. The struggle continues, but with each victory, there’s at least some cause for gladness as we approach another season of March Madness, NCAA’s men’s college basketball playoffs. The National Collegiate Athletic Association’s new policy against racist mascots is having a significant impact on teams. As of last year, any teams using “hostile and abusive” mascots, nicknames and imagery are barred from hosting or participating in NCAA championship events. The latest chapter is the University of Illinois’ recent decision, just weeks ahead of the tournament, to discontinue its 80-year half-time tradition of featuring a “war dance” by Chief Illiniwek, the Fighting Illini’s official mascot. The Chief–routinely performed by a white student, dressed in buckskin costume, war paint and feathered headdress, solemnly dancing with stern-face expression–had become a flashpoint for Illinois’ version of the culture war, often echoing sentiments similar to those of southerners clinging to the Confederate flag. For the last 20 years, the University’s Board of Trustees actively resisted protests by Native American organizations, the NAACP, Amnesty International, student groups and academic departments within the university seeking to put an end to the misappropriation of Native American culture. Last year, the Board mounted unsuccessful appeals to the NCAA. And earlier this year, the Board was confronted with a request by the Oglala Sioux Nation to cease use of the mascot and return regalia sold to the school 25 years ago. The NCAA, to its credit, enforced its new rules by barring Illinois from post-season play. The Illinois Trustees, in the face of an escalating controversy with growing costs in both money and reputation, abruptly reversed course. But it was clear the University finally did the right thing for all the wrong reasons.