At U of I, mascots are for the birds
The WISCH LIST
April 24, 2010
The Chicago Bulls can have their Benny. The Bears can trot Staley out onto Soldier Field as much as they like. And the Phillie Phanatic is Phantastic … for Philadelphia.
But when it comes to mascots and the University of Illinois – an idea proposed last month by the Illinois Student Senate – any such notion is for the birds.
Go back with me to Jan. 14, 1982, when the Illini hosted Ohio State in a basketball game during which the curtain was raised – and mercifully dropped – on one of the most ill-fated moments in school history with the unveiling of the “Orange and Blue Bird.”
“It was a bird of ill repute the moment it appeared on the floor,” the Daily Illini reported after Illinois’ 51-50 loss in overtime. “When a new-fangled yellow, fine-feathered mascot was introduced to Illinois fans prior to the Illini’s contest against Ohio State Thursday night, verbal abuse was its immediate greeting.”
Decked out in a Fighting Illini T-shirt and blue high-top gym shoes, the “O-B Bird” – probably inspired by the popularity of the San Diego Chicken – was heckled off the court. And the next day, with rumors swirling that the bird was an attempt to ease out beloved university symbol Chief Illiniwek, who had just begun falling under attack from critics, campus officials quickly backtracked.
Illinois associate athletic director Vance Redfern claimed the “O-B Bird” was not a mascot, but was created to “get hype and get home-court advantage” at Assembly Hall. Redfern added that he was “a little disturbed” by the reception received by the bird.
I don’t know where Vance is today, but I’m judging from the tale of the “O-B Bird” that if he were still around, he’d urge the university’s student senators to enroll in a history class.
And learn from it.
In March, the Student Senate’s so-called “Unity” resolution – approved by an 18-9 vote – asked interim Chancellor Robert Easter to convene a task force to find a mascot that can unify the campus. Since 2007, when Chief Illiniwek was retired despite enormous campus and statewide popularity, the university has been without an official symbol.
“There’s a real divide among students of the university,” said student senator Carey Ash, who sponsored the “Unity” resolution. “It’s the responsibility of student leaders to not only acknowledge but also make progress toward resolving it. We haven’t fully resolved all the issues of the past, and we need to move forward.”
What Ash doesn’t seem to grasp, however, is that moving forward by picking a mascot – ideas proposed by one campus student organization include the “Fighting Abe Lincolns” and the “Fire Chiefs” (it’s unclear if they were serious) – is not forward movement at all. In fact, I can’t imagine anything less “unifying” for U of I than a university-mandated mascot.
Fact is, there’s nothing in this world – except perhaps death (but not taxes) – that everyone can agree on. But let’s try to agree on this: the University of Illinois has never had a mascot.
And I don’t think it ever should.
Chief Illiniwek was a symbol, not a mascot. He was not Bucky Badger. He was not Sparty the Spartan. Opposing cheerleaders didn’t ram the Chief into goalposts during football games. And he didn’t run along the sidelines at Assembly Hall, tossing buckets of confetti into the crowd.
“That was never our role,” said Steve Raquel, a Champaign native who portrayed Chief Illiniwek during the early 1990s. “Our role was to be very respectful. Yeah, it was definitely entertaining. But our role as the Chief was very specific, and we stayed within those lines.
“We were symbolic of the University of Illinois and the Illini Tribe that we tried to hold in high esteem.”
Following last month’s senate resolution, campus Chief supporters – who took part in a student rally this past Wednesday – organized a group, “Illini Against a Mascot,” that now has nearly 3,500 fans on Facebook.
“Myself and a bunch of others thought the idea was absolutely ridiculous,” explained Roberto Martell, a U of I senior who founded “Illini Against a Mascot.” “They want to replace the honorable Chief Illiniwek with an amorphous blob. It would have to be gray, because you wouldn’t want it to be too flashy. Someone would get offended.”
Raquel added, “Whatever you would pick today, it has every possibility in the next generation to be offensive. Everything has the potential to be offensive to someone. Even something like a Blue Jay, you could have some group that’s against mascots that are birds.”
Like Illinois fans, circa 1982.
My advice to U of I is to just leave things well enough alone. Either let the university’s symbol be some form of Chief Illiniwek.
Or just let it be.