Like college students, faculty, alumni, and sports fans elsewhere across America, the folks at the University of Illinois really love their sports mascot.
He's not one of those fuzzy, oversized animal characters like Buzz the Yellowjacket at Georgia Tech or Peter the Anteater at the University of California at Irvine. Illinois' mascot is a young white guy dressed in full Sioux Indian regalia, including a feather headdress and fearsome war paint. He goes by the name "Illiniwek." The nickname of the university's sports teams is "Fighting Illini," and Illiniwek is supposed to invoke that ferocious spirit.
But the National Collegiate Athletic Association, or NCAA, thinks Illiniwek represents something quite different. It calls the chief a "hostile and abusive" racist stereotype, insulting to Native Americans.
After pressuring other universities to change mascot names like "Indians" and "Savages," the NCAA has asked the University of Illinois to come up with a different mascot as well. Until then, Illinois is banned from hosting basketball playoff games, which make a lot of money for the school.
So far, Illinois' administrators have declined to retire Chief Illiniwek. After all, they say, the Oglalla Sioux tribe sold them the mascot costume, so it can't be that degrading.
That was 25 years ago, however, and now the Sioux want the outfit back. Some Native Americans have told interviewers that Illiniwek is harmless, but others find a white guy leaping around in an Indian headdress offensive and degrading.
To confuse matters, some colleges have been allowed to keep their Native American mascots and nicknames -- "the Seminoles" at Florida State University, to name one. So it's not at all clear how much longer Chief Illiniwek will be "playing Indian" at the University of Illinois