Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Hail and farewell to the Chief

I was never all that interested in sports, when I was in school. The attraction came to me late in life, as I learned to appreciate the fellowship of fans, the trust that is shared among those who support a common cause, that cause being something other than avoiding work. Support of a team is an elemental tribalism, without the need to resort to violence to establish hierarchy. At least that’s what the anthropologists tell us. Personally, I discovered that sports are artistic. The athletes perform some elegant maneuvers, create a beautiful dance, and I have learned to enjoy the view and share it with my friends.

The dance is not only performed by the basketball, football, and such players. The cheerleaders and mascots have their place in the scheme of things, too. Only, somebody is messing with the music.

As of the time I write this, Chief Illiniwek has one last dance to strut, Wednesday evening. After that, he is to be retired, and the University of Illinois will be looking for a new mascot. The dispute leading up to the Chief’s removal from view is one of the silliest I have seen. The NCAA decided that the depiction of a member of an extinct nation was hurtful to some other persons who may have had an extremely distant connection to them, as the figure was supposedly subject to ridicule. As a result of those hurt feelings, the NCAA summarily announced that, in effect, either the injun goes, or the team goes. If the guy in the big headdress continues his dance, the team is locked out of the “Big Dance”, the post-season championship games. Naturally, as the athletic program at any given Big Ten university is a huge generator of cash, the school’s heads chose to make Illiniwek into a heap of feathers, instead of a powerful rallying symbol. They knuckled under in the face of blackmail.

That is a pity.

Chief Illiniwek was one of the most carefully respectful figures, when he was first introduced to the public more than eighty years ago. That hasn’t changed. The university went to the trouble of not merely getting permission to use his image, but asking advice from the regional tribes as to how he might best show the strength of the local people via the student athletes. The dance has always been carefully choreographed so as to present a strong, spiritual image -- not a taunting piece of nonsense to bring embarrassment to anybody.

To be honest, I cannot believe this decision by the U of I will bring anything good. My own alma mater has a human mascot. How long will it be before Sean Connery and a dozen other “sensitive” Scots come running to tear the kilts off Monmouth? Will the pride of Dublin come to Notre Dame to stop their use of the little leprechaun? Will the tree-huggers come after the Sycamores? And, more comparable still to the Illini -- a nation long since gone -- will some Swedish-American cry insult over the use of his fantasy ancestor’s image by the National Football League’s Minnesota Vikings? Where does this hypersensitivity nonsense stop -- when all the mascots are named after single-celled organisms, when all sports are outlawed and the population is too weak to lift a twig?

How this is supposed to help the pride of a dead people I can not understand. For those who say it helps the pride of the remaining Native Americans, I will beg to differ. Injured pride comes when a person sees that he, himself, can not live up to a high standard or to the bold examples set before him. If one wishes to boost the pride of a person, one shows him how to stand on his own, and encourages him not to whine about what the other guys are doing.

It is time some folks grew up.

When a person takes insult where none is given, when the crowd sides with the complainer and silences the other, it sets an unfortunate precedent. It emboldens others to silence those they do not like. It encourages futher extortion. It buries open dialog. That, in turn, breeds greater -- justifiable -- resentment, and eventually creates true hatred and real oppression.

I’m fairly certain that’s not what the students were paying to learn when they enrolled at the University of Illinois.

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