The New York Times and the Illinois student newspaper the Daily Illini both report today that the University of Illinois is retiring its Native American mascot, Chief Illiniwek, on February 21, after the last men’s home basketball game of the season.
The NCAA Executive Committee instituted a policy in 2005 that placed Illinois on a list of non-compliant institutions for maintaining the Native American mascot. Illinois was thus banned from hosting NCAA post-season events at home.
Lawrence C. Eppley, the Chair of Illinois’ Board of Trustees, explained the decision to retire the Chief in a university press release issued this morning:
U. of I. Board of Trustees Chair Lawrence C. Eppley said today’s announcement marks a critical step toward finishing the work of the consensus process. “This step is in the best interest of the University and is consistent with the Board’s previously stated goal of concluding this year its consensus process regarding Chief Illiniwek. Among our objectives was recognizing the goal of having high integrity athletic programs and student athletes who have the opportunity to compete at the highest levels,” Eppley said.
The debate over the Chief Illiniwek mascot was a hotly contested issue on Illinois’ campus; as FIRE announced just yesterday, approximately 130 Illinois students joined a Facebook.com group called “If They Get Rid of the Chief I’m Becoming a Racist.” One student posted a comment on the group’s wall deriding the advocates for the Chief’s removal, stating, “apparently the leader of this movement is of Sioux descent … the Sioux are the ones that killed off the Illini [I]ndians, so she’s just trying to finish what her ancestors started. I say we throw a tomohawk [sic] into her face.”
Faculty and staff urged the university to take action against that student, and Illinois Chancellor Richard Herman said publicly that he would press for disciplinary action against the student for making threats online. As FIRE has stated, the tomahawk comment does not meet the level of a “true threat,” but is rather fully protected hyperbolic expression.
Along with the Chief, I wonder if Herman will also retire his promise of disciplinary action against the student online commenter.