University continues to produce Chief Illiniwek merchandise

By Paolo Cisneros

When Steve Raquel donned his headdress to portray Chief Illiniwek in the fall of 1992, Chief merchandise was readily available in stores across the campus and state. The iconic symbol adorned everything from sweatshirts and baseball caps to pennants and water bottles.

Today, products featuring the image are increasingly difficult to come by, but the University continues to own its trademark and will sell Chief merchandise through the Collegiate Licensing Company’s Vault – a brand that preserves the historic symbols of American colleges and universities.

Raquel said he understands the University’s reason for retaining the image’s rights even if he is not fond of the current situation.

“They want to have their cake and eat it too,” he said. “They don’t want anyone else to use it.”

The University’s office of the chancellor was given the responsibility of handling the Chief’s retirement during a 2007 University Board of Trustees meeting.

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    Shortly afterward, the office decided to maintain the image’s rights in the hopes that it would not be abused.

    According to the Federal Trademark Act, the owner of a trademarked image can lose the mark’s rights if they choose to stop using it. Continuing to produce Chief merchandise was the University’s way of preventing that from happening.

    “The board has always believed that the University of Illinois needs to preserve the trademark so it could be protected from misuse,” said trustee David Dorris. “I don’t think it’s an issue of whether you’re pro-Chief or anti-Chief.”

    Student trustee and former president of Students for Chief Illiniwek Paul Schmitt said he agrees with the University’s decision to retain the rights.

    “I think Chancellor Herman doesn’t want that imagery to be abused, and I agree with him on that,” he said. “You really have to prevent people who have bad intentions from using it in an unwanted way.”

    Defining “bad intentions” is a difficult task, but Dorris said the University’s decision was meant to ensure the image was protected from individuals on both sides of the debate.

    “You can imagine if extremes on either side of the issue got a hold of it,” he said. “Who knows what they’d do?”

    The Collegiate Licensing Company would not disclose financial terms of their agreement with the University.

    Specifics about the types and quantities of merchandise that will be produced will not be released until Jan. 1. Chancellor Herman was unavailable for comment.

    It is worth noting, however, that an institution that makes negligible use of a symbol can still legally lose its rights, said law professor Peter Maggs.

    “If there were no attempt other than to prevent other people from using the mark, I would be suspicious,” he said.

    Determining the legality of the University’s retention of the rights would require a comprehensive review of its use.

    Robert Warrior, director of the Native American House, declined to comment on the continuation of Chief merchandise.

    Warrior recently published a letter in which he described the Chief as “a caricature, a stereotype, and an insult.”

    Although it’s been years since he last danced as the Chief, Raquel said he would like to see the University loosen restrictions on the image some day. Until then, he can at least takes comfort in knowing that someone is legally accountable for its use.

    “It’s not the ideal situation, but it’s probably the best solution for the time being,” he said.