UI appeals NCAA policy

URBANA – The NCAA's policy restricting postseason competition for schools using American Indian imagery interferes with the schools' autonomy and is the result of a flawed process by the NCAA Executive Committee, according to an appeal filed by the University of Illinois.

The UI sent its appeal of the NCAA policy on the use of American Indian imagery overnight Thursday. The appeal was expected to be received in their offices this morning.

The appeal, signed by UI Board of Trustees Chairman Larry Eppley, states the policy on American Indian imagery conflicts with NCAA principles of institutional responsibility and autonomy. It states the policies regarding the use of Chief Illiniwek and the name "Fighting Illini" are within the jurisdiction of the trustees, who are trying to reach a "consensus conclusion" on the issue.

The UI board "should be allowed to continue its work unfettered by the NCAA's arbitrary new policy and the corresponding deadline," the appeal states.

Regarding the names "Illini" and "Fighting Illini," the appeal states:

– The names derive from the state's name and predate the Chief Illiniwek tradition.

– "Illini" was coined by the student newspaper and is used broadly to describe UI students and alumni, not just its athletic teams.

– "Fighting" was first used to describe the 1919 and 1920 UI football teams and was adopted for a 1921 fundraising campaign for Memorial Stadium.

The appeal argues Chief Illiniwek is not a stereotypical sports mascot. "The Chief Illiniwek performer does not roam the sidelines, lead cheers or engage in high jinks," it states.

It describes the Chief's performance as an interpretation of American Indian "fancy dancing." It also cites a 1995 U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights finding that Chief Illiniwek, while offensive to some individuals, did not constitute a racially hostile environment on campus.

Finally, the appeal argues the NCAA failed to follow its own procedures in enacting the policy. It states the NCAA Executive Committee cannot enact legislation, and the policy should have been subject to a vote by the membership.

It also states the NCAA did not take into account the 1995 finding by the Office of Civil Rights regarding Chief Illiniwek, and that it relied heavily on "inaccurate, incomplete and misleading information supplied by one individual," to which the UI was not given an opportunity to respond.

UI spokesman Tom Hardy called the appeal a "strong, well-organized" appeal.

"We looked at what all the other institutions who have appealed, what the approach was that each one of them took. But I think this appeal and this document is very distinct from the others and very representative of our unique situation," Hardy said. "I think it very strongly reflects the board of trustees' process and the assertion that the board has an autonomous self-determination right here, and that the policy interferes with that."

The trustees adopted a resolution in September pledging to consider its athletic programs and the ability of its athletes to "compete at the highest levels" in deciding the Chief issue.

The board had already adopted a set of guidelines in July, designed to help them reach a "consensus conclusion" on the Chief issue, that called for keeping the name "Fighting Illini."

Hardy said the issues regarding the name and Chief Illiniwek tradition are unique to the UI, but other schools have addressed the process used by the NCAA in adopting its policy. However, the other appeals have been decided on the basis of whether a namesake tribe supports the schools' use of American Indian imagery.

"We don't know how they'll respond to those arguments (on the NCAA process), even though they've been made," Hardy said.

The NCAA policy, adopted in August, forbids schools using "hostile or abusive" American Indian imagery from hosting postseason events or from displaying such imagery, nicknames or mascots at those events.

The NCAA listed 18 schools to which the policy applied, but three have since been removed from the list. The NCAA ruled that the University of Utah Utes, the Florida State University Seminoles and the Central Michigan University Chippewas were exempt because they have the backing of local tribes to use American Indian nicknames.

The University of North Dakota Fighting Sioux also filed an appeal, but it was denied because of the opposition of Sioux tribes.

A spokesman for the NCAA said support or opposition from a namesake tribe is a primary factor in deciding an appeal, but it is not the only factor. Other considerations include information from the students, faculty and community, and the environment at the university.

The UI's appeal notes there is no tribe called "Illini" or "Illiniwek" from which it could seek approval for use of the name.

The Illini, or Illinois, Indians were a loosely organized band of independent tribes that included the Peoria, whose descendants now have tribal headquarters in Oklahoma, say historians and anthropologists.

Hardy said no decision been made on what the UI will do if the appeal is unsuccessful.

"We know what our options are. There is an administrative appeal option to take it to the executive committee," Hardy said. "That's one route to take, but we're focused on the immediate objective right before us and that is this appeal."

The UI already complies with much of the NCAA's policy. Chief Illiniwek does not perform at postseason events, and most of the athletic uniforms say "Illinois" or display the block "I" logo. None has the Chief logo, although a few may use the word "Illini."

The NCAA policies on use of American Indian imagery take effect Feb. 1, 2006.

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