ESPN Network: | RPM | | | | | ABCSports | EXPN | FANTASY | INSIDER

  RPI Rankings
  Message Board
  NCAA StatSearch

Thursday, March 8, 2001
Chancellor Aiken warns group of possible sanctions

The battle over Chief Illiniwek has been raging for a little more than a decade now, but those in favor of retiring the University of Illinois mascot have finally found the ammunition to raise some eyebrows.

Chief Illiniwek
"Chief Illiniwek'' jumps high, but many do not jump for joy when the subject is the Fighting Illini's controversial mascot.

The Illinois Board of Trustees will address the issue publicly on Wednesday, but should they decide not to retire the controversial mascot, several concerned faculty members are poised to discourage prospective student-athletes from attending the school.

The controversy comes at a time when the 4th-ranked Illinois men's basketball team is gaining more and more national exposure, as it eyes a No. 1 seed in next week's NCAA men's basketball tournament.

"Nobody wants to hurt the U of I, nobody wants to hurt any student," professor Stephen Kaufman said, "but it's in the students' best interest to know what they are getting into. They need to know who will represent them and whom they will be representing should they decide to compete here. They need to stir that into their decision-making pot."

Similar tactics were used last summer, Kaufman said, when the university considered hiring Oklahoma basketball coach Kelvin Sampson to replace the departed Lon Kruger. Kaufman said the group contacted Sampson, partially of Native American descent, informing him of the situation at Illinois. Sampson stayed at Oklahoma; the university then hired current coach Bill Self.

"We told him, 'This is what's going on here and you need to decide whether this is the type of place you want to come,' " Kaufman said. "He made his decision and Bill Self made his."

Chancellor Aiken's statement
Questions and concerns have been raised recently about potential contacts by employees, students or others associated with the University with student athletes who are being recruited by the University of Illinois.

As a member of the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) and the Big Ten Athletic Conference, there are a number of rules with which all persons associated with the University must comply.

For example, the NCAA regulates the timing, nature and frequency of contacts between any University employee and prospective athletes. It is the responsibility of the coaches and administration in the Division of Intercollegiate Athletics to recruit the best student athletes to participate in varsity sports at the University of Illinois. No contacts are permitted with prospective student athletes, including high school and junior college students, by University students, employees or others associated with the University without express authorization of the Director of Athletics or his designee.

The University faces potentially serious sanctions for violation of NCAA or Big Ten rules. All members of the University community are expected to abide by these rules, and certainly any intentional violations will not be condoned. It is the responsibility of each member of the University to ensure that all students, employees and others associated with the University conduct themselves in a sportsmanlike manner.

Though Kaufman wouldn't comment specifically on what tactics the faculty group would use to persuade prospective recruits, he called the plan "multi-faceted."

Whatever it entails, the plan has caught the attention of Illinois administrators. On Friday, Chancellor Michael Aiken sent an e-mail to all students and faculty, warning of potential NCAA and Big Ten violations should potential recruits be contacted at an inappropriate time.

"The university faces potentially serious sanctions for violation of NCAA or Big Ten rules," Aiken's e-mail said. "All members of the university community are expected to abide by these rules, and certainly any intentional violations will not be condoned."

Kaufman, the leader of a faculty group that has been working with the National Coalition on Racism in Sports and Media, said the lawyers for the group were currently looking into the e-mail to identify the validity of such concerns.

Any interfering with the recruiting process could put basketball coach Self, football coach Ron Turner and the rest of the Illinois coaching staff in a very precarious position. At one end of the spectrum is the effect such tactics would have on recruiting, while at the other end is an issue extremely sensitive to many.

"I would be very disappointed if anybody that works at our university would try to discourage students from coming to school here, whether they are student-athletes or not," Self told The Chicago Sun-Times. "It would be especially disturbing to me if anybody would say negative things that have nothing to do with what's going on inside the basketball program."

Turner echoed those sentiments to the Sun-Times.

"Obviously, that's not something we would want," he said. "There are other ways to go about trying to get something done."

Chief Illiniwek has danced and pranced his way along the sidelines at halftime of Illinois sporting events for over 75 years. Over the past decade, though, many like Kaufman have taken issue with the mascot, which dresses in full buckskins and headdress. Numerous Big Ten schools have banned the mascot from attending Illinois road games.

Local and national church leaders (including Archbishop Desmond Tutu) have told urged the university to change its mascot, as has the National Governors Conference and the NAACP. Even the NCAA has chimed in, offering its voice of displeasure. "Member institutions with Indian mascots that promote Indian caricatures and mimic ceremonial rites do not comply with the NCAA's commitment to ethnic student welfare," said Charles Whitcomb, chairman of the NCAA Minority Opportunities and Interests Committee. "The continuation of this practice sends a clear message that administrators, who have the responsibility of nurturing our students, have an insensitive disregard for the native culture of this country."

In 1998, the Faculty/Student Senate voted 97-29 to recommend that the Chief be retired. Kaufman says that more than 800 faculty members have signed a petition against the Chief.

Yet just last month, the university rejected an offer by the U.S. Justice Department to mediate discussions on the controversy at no cost. That decision drew the rage of many, including Debbie Reese, graduate student and president of Red Roots, the school's Native American Student Organization.

"I believe the Trustees want to keep their fake Indian," Reese said. "In light of this, I wasn't surprised the Trustees rejected the offer."

Wednesday's press conference will be the Board of Trustee's first public comments on the issue in more than a decade. Kaufman hopes the Board is decisive and doesn't skirt around the issue.

"Your ass hurts if you sit on the fence too long," Kaufman said. "So I hope they make the right decision, put aside their individual feelings of nostalgia, and let us all move on. I think they realize how much this is hurting them nationally. And if they don't resolve it now, it's not going to go away."

With the effect Kaufman's tactics could potentially have on recruiting, many have already targeted him as public enemy No. 1.

"I've received quite a number of invitations through e-mail to travel to very warm parts of the underworld," Kaufman joked. "I have received a number of invitations to relocate to far-off places, with people willing to transport me there in the back of their cars. But I don't plan to bow down to any intimidation.

"It just isn't appropriate for a university to have a race-based mascot for its sports teams. It isn't. It's time for the Chief to go."

Send this story to a friend | Most sent stories