UI clear of NCAA postseason restrictions

By Steve Contorno

When Chief Illiniwek’s bare feet touch the hardwood floors of Assembly Hall for the final time on Wednesday, he could be affecting several arenas he’s never stepped foot in.

On Feb. 15, the University received a letter from the NCAA reversing a mandate issued in August 2005, which forbade the University from hosting postseason contests. The ramifications of the letter are effective immediately after the Chief’s last dance. Several sporting events at which the Chief does not perform could benefit the most from the decision.

“Our ability to compete fairly from both a competition and recruiting standpoint are both positively effected by the decision,” women’s head soccer coach Janet Rayfield said. “Both aspects are critical for us to compete on a national level.”

Rayfield’s squad was nationally ranked for a large portion of the 2006 season. But despite a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament, a slot that nearly guarantees home field until the Sweet Sixteen, the soccer team was forced to travel to St. Louis for the first two rounds. Though it was able to sneak out of Missouri with two wins, senior forward Ella Masar said the team would have jumped at the chance to play on its own soil.

“We are much better at home; we beat (Big Ten Champion) Penn State at home,” Masar said. “We have one of the best fields in the Big Ten and we would love to be able to play there and show it off in the postseason.”

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    Until the Board of Trustees retired Chief Illiniwek, neither soccer nor any other Illinois team could host a postseason event.

    “The NCAA has not mandated that any institution change its mascot, nickname or imagery,” NCAA director of public relations Erik Christianson said. “However, we do feel we not only have the right, but also an obligation, to ensure our NCAA championships are conducted in an atmosphere free of racial stereotyping and one in which all of our student athletes, athletics staff and fans feel comfortable.”

    Men’s tennis, wrestling and gymnastics all join soccer as teams poised to be powerhouses in the nation for years to come. But in an August 2005 press release outlining the new policy, the NCAA made it clear that all programs would suffer if a school chose to adopt any mascot deemed “hostile and abusive.”

    “As a national association, we believe that mascots, nicknames or images deemed hostile or abusive in terms of race, ethnicity or national origin should not be visible at the championship events that we control,” said Walter Harrison, chair of the Executive Committee, in a press release.

    The NCAA originally identified 18 schools that used American Indian imagery and were forced to comply with the new policy. Though the NCAA was not available for comment because of the Monday holiday, Senior Vice President Bernard Franklin said in a Friday press release that with the retiring of the Chief, the NCAA has restored the University’s right to host postseason events.

    “Assuming the announced decision takes place, and the university no longer uses ‘Chief Illiniwek’ and related Native American imagery in athletics, the University of Illinois, Champaign, will be in full compliance with the Executive Committee policy. The university will be able to host and participate in NCAA championships events should it become eligible,” Franklin said.

    The University’s decision to retire the Chief dance comes weeks before the regular season for winter sports begins to wind down. Though the sites for the majority of the postseason venues have been decided for the rest of the 2006-07 school year, one tournament has plenty of open spots – the NIT.

    With an up and down basketball team on the verge of getting bumped from the NCAA Tournament, Illinois may get the opportunity to entertain the consolation teams at Assembly Hall.

    Regardless of what happens at the conclusion of the basketball season, the University will be hosting Big Ten and NCAA tournament events in the near future. And the NCAA said that privilege is not in jeopardy, even though the University has chosen to keep the name “Fighting Illini.”

    “Previously, the NCAA staff review committee agreed with the university in November 2005 that the nicknames ‘Illini’ and ‘Fighting Illini’ are closely related to the name of the state and not directly associated with Native Americans and therefore were not reasons to subject the university to the Executive Committee’s policy,” Franklin said.