Smile Politely

Mascot Malaise

Surely you’ve heard the good news that Interim Chancellor Barbara Wilson has approved an initiative to replace Chief Illiniwek, the university’s old, racist mascot with a new mascot that will henceforth be known as our “first ever.” Rhetorical contortion acts aside, this is very, very good news for our university and for our community here in Champaign-Urbana. While I’m certainly no expert, as someone who as observed the Chief and his impact on my hometown quite literally for my whole entire life (progressing through a range of responses that include excitement, awe, idolization, amazement, confusion, dissonance, shock, denial, bargaining, guilt, anger, depression, and finally, a baffled and indignant rage that has prompted me to engage in more than a handful of regrettable verbal exchanges, and now this mostly unnecessary article), I attribute a great deal of the University of Illinois’ trouble over the years to the unwillingness of past administrations to do away with the Chief on their own terms. I also reserve a great deal of accountability for the largely anonymous group of activists who agitated for the reinstatement of this bygone relic cum artifact of small town white supremacy.

U of I’s failure to implement due diligence on this issue has cost the university and our town dearly. At first blush, it’s easy to see just how remarkable the stain our long-gone but always-lingering mascot has left on our beloved Alma’s hallowed robes when you look at just how little controversy other universities that once sported offensive mascots currently experience after dispatching with their shame and making a clean break for a normal, not horrifyingly insensitive mascot. Here I refer to Stanford, UMass, Dartmouth, Siena, Eastern Michigan, St. John’s, Marquette, Miami, Seattle University, Louisiana-Monroe, Arkansas State, North Dakota; the list goes on. It’s also not difficult to see how allowing the ghost of the Chief to haunt our university and the town that houses it has come to define differences, expose tensions, and widen gaps between the communities and subcommunities that any other university might reasonably hope their mascot and athletics program would unite. That’s, like, the whole point of having sports teams play their sportsgames at a university, right? To make us townies feel like we too are a part of the university so that we don’t rise up in the blue dark some cool autumn night and take to those pillared monuments of fete intellectualism with gasoline soaked rags and pitchforks and what not?

Fine, the university blew it. We get it. Their mascot was cool until we as a society began to slowly value and advocate for a multicultural perspective, at which point the administration should’ve acted but instead drug their feet prompting the NCAA to intervene. Hooray for generational progress, etc. So what’s the big deal about having bungled the dismount while jettisoning your awful racist mascot, you ask. Well, now when you want to take your kid to a basketball game, you have to explain to them why all the misty-eyed white hairs are standing up and chanting together at halftime. Just imagine for a moment that you’re a young professor (or her spouse) who’s just landed a job on our campus. What better way to enculturate your family into the university life but to take them to a ball game?

Great idea, hon’! Let’s load up the station wagon and pack up a few sandwiches and a six pack of lemon flavored LaCroixs while we’re at it. We can all walk over to the quadrangle together for a nice picnic once the score of the game becomes so disproportionate in the other team’s favor that there’s no sense in sticking around! Of course, after watching the boys hustle up and down the hardwood for a half, you don’t think to second guess why the nice elderly lady and her husband sitting next to you are slowly, solemnly rising to their feet, until you look around and see that they aren’t the only ones: suddenly a smattering of others have joined and have just begun to raise their hands to the sky with the sort of self-important profundity you heretofore had assumed to be reserved for non-denominational church services while the band starts playing what sounds like the score to Stagecoach. Seriously.  Imagine what your questions might be. Imagine what your kid’s questions might be. Probably, “can I go get a hotdog?” (NO! We packed sandwiches, damn it. Remember the quadrangle? That’s our plan. Nothing has changed!). Needless to say, things have taken a turn.

I’m making light, but this is a legitimate problem that impacts Illinois’ ability to recruit and retain faculty. Now, perhaps that’s not a big deal to you. Perhaps you’re even a little miffed that the cultural makeup of your community is demonstrably skewed toward progressive ideals and socially liberal values because of the outward-looking nature of the R1 Institution that just keeps growing and growing right there in your own backyard. Fine. Fair enough. But have you ever considered that the reason the sports teams that play in those big stadiums over where the cornfields used to be might suck so much is because it’s difficult to convince young, talented athletes, many of whom are racial minorities, to come attend an agrarian university surrounded by a bunch of mad white folks who want to bring back a mascot that is definitionally racist? Not so sure? Okay, well, tell me how well we’ve recruited in our own state since the Chief’s last horribly offensive dance in 2007? Which direction do you think the arrow’s pointing on that one?

I think what I’m saying is, like, maybe you are the problem, angry white townie. Maybe you are and always have been. Has that ever occurred to you? Well, probably not, but it doesn’t really matter, because it looks like this round is probably in the books. And it’s okay, I don’t hate you, or anything. I just think you’re super super wrong. Maybe when we get our sweet new first mascot your heart will melt and you’ll come to embrace a new, better version of yourself. If you do, great. If not, well, it doesn’t matter. Why? Well, consider for a moment the uncomfortable reality that you only have x number of years left to live. In addition to that consider the reality that your grandchildren will likely only carry on a small fraction of the traditions and values with which you presently associate yourself and your family. Maybe they’ll uphold your lazy racism, keep your family line pure, all that. But this here is a numbers game, and the die has already been cast. You and your ilk are destined for a future that you yourself have spent much of your own life imagining into existence for so many others: the vocal minority who’d be better off shutting up, bucking up and adjusting to the world as it exists.


Okay. Whew. That was fun. Glad I got that out of me. You know, it’s been awhile since I’ve penned an article for SP. Must’ve been at least one Chancellor ago. Not sure how many Provosts. I think just one. Definitely just one president ago, and our basketball coach has been the same this whole time, but I do think it was one dumbass letter with a bunch of signatures supporting Phyllis Wise ago, which I guess is the same as being one Chancellor ago. I get so confused. Honestly, sometimes the only thing that gives me a little peace living in this town is kicking back, relaxing, and reading through the comments people leave on News-Gazette articles. Huh. I wonder what folks have been saying about all this hubub. A penny for your thoughts, anonymous internet commenters of Champaign County!


One could go so far to say that if this were to happen it would be an immense embarrassment, you’re right. Just like having fans who yell racist comments and throw things at the parents of players on the opposing team is an immense embarrassment. So here’s a thought, quit embarrassing us.

Good one. Very clever. Glad you chimed in.

Oh really? What if the new mascot is a pissed off white townie with a bunch of gross shoulder acne wearing a neon orange Chief shirt with the sleeves cut off who yells culturally insensitive things at the crowd?

Administrators charged with overseeing large organizations like the University of Illinois are capable of administering multiple initiatives at once by implementing standard workflow management procedures. My guess is that Interim Chancellor Wilson sees this particular initiative as being interconnected with the other two priorities you reference in your stupid stupid comment, but I suppose I could be wrong about that.

Have you ever said a word over and over again for, like, a minute straight? I’m asking seriously. If you have, you know that meaning breaks down after about thirty seconds. The phonemes feel foreign in your mouth, like you’re chewing on something that isn’t there anymore. Maybe it never was. When I was a kid I’d do that whenever I learned a new word that I liked, but I wouldn’t stop at a minute. I’d go and go. Three minutes. Five minutes. 10. 20. You do that for long enough and the word vanishes. Or maybe your mind just builds an absence over the space that the word once occupied in your mind. I never could tell which. Anyway, what exactly are you saying is nonsense? I lost track.


I’m not sure what “If gender equity insists on a separate mascot for women’s teams” means, but the words you’re using suggest that perhaps you have a liberal cousin or grandchild or someone else who has attempted to teach you new knowledge. Good for them, I guess. Sucks that they have to know you, though. Their life would be better if you were someone else’s relative.

Point of fact: that would not be a hate crime. If you want to use grownup words, please use them correctly. Thanks for playing, dummy! Try again.

Hey weward, Tyronius P HoggLegg likes your suggestion! Looks like he’s got one of his own below. Chime in and give him some feedback when you get a chance.

Probably the best suggestion we’ve had so far! Thanks for your ideas, Tyronius!

Hmm. I was right there with you up until those last two sentences.

Oh, man. I accidentally misread “Chief” as “Chef” and got real excited, like maybe you were suggesting that we have a chef mascot. Your comment is definitely the most boring of the bunch, so my brain probably misread that on purpose so reading it didn’t feel like a total and complete waste of time, which it ultimately was. You suck.

I get it, you’re an oppressed minority that will one day lose your culture completely. Your history will be represented in the media through a oversimplified, and largely negative, lens. I have to admit it, that sounds pretty awful.

I’m totally cool with both of these thoughts, actually. Bald headed white guy could be kind of cool, especially if we rendered him as a sort of badass Mr. Clean. That could actually gain some traction with the LGBTQ community, but I’m writing this after office hours and I don’t want to call their emergency hotline just to check on a theoretical. Let me get back with you on that a little later, if that’s alright.


Anyway, for myself, if I had my druthers, we’d just get ourselves a Grimace, paint him bright orange, and have the band carry him out onto the field/court and let him run around a little bit. Then he can go over and hang with the Orange Krush for the second half. That would make me really happy. Like an oranger, better Hilly the Hilltopper. We can call him Illy!

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