Last dance for controversial mascot

The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign’s controversial team mascot, Chief Illiniwek, who performed during the school’s football and basketball games, danced his last dance Feb. 21, after the university decided to drop the Indian caricature.

University officials recently announced their plan to retire the 81-year-old mascot, who is portrayed by students wearing a buckskin-clad costume and a feather headdress.

Retiring the chief is a step forward and a victory for those who have pressured the university for years to dump the mascot, which they say was humiliating and created a hostile environment on campus. On-campus protests regarding use of Chief Illiniwek began in the 1980s and serious debates have been going on for at least the last 10 years.

“It would be the end of the chief, but the beginning of finally having our voices heard,” Charlotte Wilkenson told the Chicago Tribune. Wilkenson, 32, is a Native American graduate student. “This will be a time when we finally honor the people who have been fighting the issue, who have been saying all along to retire the chief in name, in symbol, in performance,” she said.

The university also decided to end the chief’s halftime show in response to the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s ban on schools with American Indian-related nicknames or mascots hosting championship events. The ban would open the way for the university to host postseason games, including next month’s National Invitation Tournament in basketball.

In 2005 the NCAA ruled that Chief Illiniwek and similar mascots at other universities were “hostile and abusive,” resulting in sanctions preventing the school from hosting men’s tennis and women’s soccer championship games.

NCCA spokesman Bob Williams said he will defend their position aggressively because they have 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, athletic staff and fans feel comfortable.”

Hardaway gets rejected for trash talking

At the National Basketball Association’s 2007 All-Star game, former NBA player Tim Hardaway was banished because of a rant during a recent radio interview in which he made anti-gay slurs. Hardaway said he hated gay people and that they should not be permitted in the NBA, in the United States or the world.

This comment came a week after John Amaechi became the first retired NBA player to come out and announce he is gay. “His words pollute the atmosphere,” said Amaechi. “It creates an atmosphere that allows young gays and lesbians to be harassed in school, and where in 33 states you can lose your job. It hurts all of us, not just gay people.”

Neil Giuliano, president of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, told The Associated Press, “Hardaway’s comments are vile, repulsive and indicative of the climate of ignorance, hostility and prejudice that continues to pervade sports culture.” Giuliano added, “This ugly display is only the tip of a very large iceberg.”

Commissioner David Stern took action on behalf of the NBA, saying Hardaway was removed from being invited to the All-Star game “because we didn’t think his comments were consistent with having anything to do with us.” Stern told reporters that a discussion about openly gay players could be part of future rookie orientation programs.

Hardaway eventually apologized publicly for his comments. “As an African American, I know all too well the negative thoughts and feelings hatred and bigotry cause,” he said. “I am committed to examining my feelings and will recognize, appreciate and respect differences among people in our society.”

Amaechi said the anti-gay sentiment remains despite Hardaway’s apology. “Whether he’s honest or not doesn’t inoculate us from his words,” said Amaechi. “It’s not progress to hear hateful words.”

plozano @ pww.org

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