Editorial: In want of leadership

Another chapter of the Chief Illiniwek saga was written Nov. 11, when the NCAA staff review committee denied the University’s appeal against the Aug. 5 ruling defining the symbol as “hostile and abusive.” While the NCAA deserves scorn for grandstanding at the expense of the University’s autonomy, the Board of Trustees must recognize the need for a swift and firm decision on the fate of the Chief — and make one.

It is difficult to hold much faith in the NCAA’s ability to rule as a rational and responsible body considering its embarrassingly public display of incoherence and ineptness. Since the high-handed edict issued against the University and 17 other institutions for their “hostile and abusive” symbols, mascots, nicknames or imagery, the NCAA has been forced to retract the claim against several institutions such as the Florida State Seminoles and the Utah Utes.

The absurdity about these successful appeals is that they were based on information and circumstances that were more than likely spelled out in the self-evaluation reports the NCAA asked from these institutions. The University was successful in winning the appeal to keep the nicknames “Illini” and “Fighting Illini.” But the argument used in the appeal in defense of the nickname was crafted around the very facts included in its self-evaluation report.

This reveals just how little the NCAA cared about putting in a good-faith effort for a thorough examination of facts. It chose to prey upon the highly visible profile of the Chief to create the illusion of an earnest attempt to combat racism. Ostentatious showings of moral righteousness are easy to make, but getting rid of the Chief or forcing Bradley University to stop calling themselves “Braves” doesn’t provide any fundamental solution to the racial divide that persists in American society.

The NCAA has made no attempts to address the fact that, for example, there are only three black football head coaches at historically non-black Division I schools. It is ironic that, in the Nov. 10 report released by the Black Coaches Association that examined the hiring practices of 30 institutions to see whether minority coaches were given a fair shake, the University was one of five schools given the top mark.

Nevertheless, the University will need to make a decision on the fate of Chief Illiniwek, regardless of whether a second appeal is filed to the NCAA executive board.

What is interesting is that Lawrence Eppley, chairman of the Board of Trustees, considered the NCAA’s concession on the nicknames a victory. Such an attitude, combined with the fact that the two Chief portrayers will be graduating at the end of the current school year, gives the appearance that the board might be inclined to retire the Chief at the end of the spring semester of 2006 at the latest.

Should the board choose to do so, it will be difficult to shake the impression that the trustees caved to undue external pressures after being too weak-willed to make progress on their own. Aside from the initially bold rhetoric against the NCAA’s infringement on the University’s autonomy, the trustees have proven to be feeble in their attempts to bring about a “consensus resolution,” a goal agreed upon in June 2004. No real public progress has been made to mediate the demonizing shouting match between pro-Chief and anti-Chief camps into anything that resembles a civilized, constructive dialogue.

But, at this point in time, any kind of a decision would benefit the University. The specter of the Chief has overshadowed too many other problems for far too long. The campus continues to be shackled by this debate as facilities in serious need for repair continue to be neglected for want of funds, students suffer from rising tuition and the University continues to be sold short despite the quality of education it offers. This is about as good a time as any other for the Board to make the tough decision and push the University forward.