Paint the Hall Chief 2019 portrayer.jpg

A person portraying Chief Illiniwek is shown in the crowd during the Illinois-Penn State men's basketball game Saturday, Feb. 23, 2019, at State Farm Center in Champaign.

Listen to this article

What's your take? Let us know here

Several dozen University of Illinois faculty members are urging the NCAA to once again prohibit the UI from hosting postseason competitions until it “fully complies” with NCAA policies on the use of native imagery in sports — specifically related to Chief Illiniwek.

The July 22 letter, authored by longtime Chief opponent Stephen Kaufman, accuses the university of violating NCAA rules on the use of Native American mascots, imagery and culture in athletics, which led to the Chief’s 2007 retirement.

Among other allegations, the letter accuses the UI of continuing Native American associations with the terms “Illini” and “Fighting Illini,” failing to police unauthorized use of the Chief image, and allowing Chief supporters and others to use UI facilities to promote native stereotypes.

“We have explored all known avenues within the University of Illinois to resolve these issues, yet they persist. We sincerely regret having to bring these violations to the NCAA, but we have no option but to refer this matter to you,” the letter concludes.

The letter is signed by 38 current and former UI professors, including Robert Warrior, former head of the American Indian Studies Program, and Professor Mary Kalantzis, former College of Education dean.

In an email Tuesday, NCAA spokeswoman Gail Dent declined to answer questions from News-Gazette Media, referring inquiries to the UI.

Asked about the letter, Chancellor Robert Jones said it is “replete with all kinds of inaccurate information.”

“None of these things that they apparently felt compelled to write to the NCAA about constitute any violation by any stretch of the imagination,” Jones said.

In 2005, the NCAA announced a policy that banned certain universities, including the UI, from hosting postseason competitions because they used “hostile or abusive mascots, nicknames or imagery.”

After the UI appealed, the NCAA agreed that the names “Illini” and “Fighting Illini” were acceptable but kept the UI on a sanctioned list because of the Chief Illiniwek portrayal and logo. The UI appealed again, arguing the NCAA exceeded its authority and applied the policy arbitrarily. The NCAA rejected the appeal.

The UI was turned down as the host site for the opening round of the NCAA men’s tennis championships in May 2006, despite a high ranking for its team.

In February 2007, the UI announced that the Chief would no longer perform and the name and logo would not be used, prompting the NCAA to remove the university from the list of sanctioned institutions.

Sent to NCAA president, others

The latest letter was addressed to NCAA President Mark Emmert as well as Georgia Tech President G.P. (Bud) Peterson, chairman of the NCAA’s Board of Governors, and Ohio State President Michael Drake, the chairman-elect.

The letter says the UI has violated NCAA policy by continuing to use racial or ethnic references in its athletic programs; by failing to educate supporters about the negative impact of Native American symbols, names and imagery; by using the terms “Illini” and “Fighting Illini” as references to Native Americans; and by facilitating “performances of Chief Illiniwek at NCAA events.”

The letter also accuses administrators of selectively enforcing regulations on the use of university athletic facilities, “allowing violations by Illiniwek supporters and facilitating access and efforts of those who would maintain the university’s use of Native American stereotypes, imagery and mascots.”

It also says the UI has “publicly endorsed” hostile and abusive depictions of American Indians as sports mascots, continues to market the Chief logo “in excess of any legal requirement to maintain logo ownership,” and has failed to enforce its ownership rights to the Chief, allowing its widespread use.

The campus has also ignored recommendations from student and faculty governing bodies calling for a new sports mascot, the letter says.

Letter: 'Yet they persist'

Kaufman declined to elaborate when contacted by The News-Gazette on Monday.

But he has criticized the UI for not restoring “Fighting Illini” to its original meaning, as a reference to UI students who fought in World War I.

In separate letters to Jones and athletic director Josh Whitman earlier this summer, Kaufman also cited other examples, including a recent “Illini night” promotion by the Chicago Blackhawks that included a hat with the Block I alongside the hockey team’s Indian head logo. UI officials said they approved the design before the Blackhawks logo was added, but Kaufman said emails contradict that.

In those letters, Kaufman also criticized the slow pace of the "Critical Conversation" process organized by Jones to find a way past the Chief debate, and compared its specific recommendation to memorialize the Chief’s history on campus to efforts to protect Confederate symbols.

He also called on the chancellor to provide clarity on “misinformation” on the issue, pointing to a GoFundMe campaign this summer to raise $25,000 for a gathering of Native American performers at a recent UI trustees meeting. Their goal was to protest “the dictator-like edict of the chancellor” to end Native American associations with UI athletics, which the group deemed “racist.” It raised about $3,000.

“I and others have explored all known options within the university to resolve the issues surrounding Illiniwek, yet they persist. This was also the case decades ago, forcing us to bring this issue to the NCAA and Higher Learning Commission,” Kaufman wrote to Whitman on June 23.

Jones: 'Very tight control'

Jones took issue with the faculty letter’s characterizations and noted that only a fraction of the 2,000-plus faculty on campus had signed it.

He said “Fighting Illini” was coined long before the Chief was created and is “not a reference to native people in any way, shape or form. It’s unfortunate that it’s being misconstrued that way.”

Jones said the campus keeps “very tight control” over the Chief trademark and only allows it to be used “to the extent that we’re legally required” to retain ownership.

Jones said he wasn’t sure what Chief performances the letter was referencing, other than appearances by people dressed up like the Chief in the stands at UI games. He said he has worked to limit those, noting that there’s only been one in the last 18 months.

“There’s a fundamental difference of opinion about what the core issues are and the progress that we’ve made, and about what we as an institution can do and can’t do as it relates to this Chief Illiniwek issue,” he said. “We try to be thoughtful, as deliberate as we possibly can, but there’s no simple solution.”

Reporter/Columnist

Julie Wurth is a reporter covering the University of Illinois at The News-Gazette. Her email is jwurth@news-gazette.com, and you can follow her on Twitter (@jawurth).