Wisch: Free Speech Joins Chief Illiniwek As Target At Illinois

By Dave Wischnowsky –

(CBS) If a beloved symbol represented a major public university for eight decades before its retirement, but the administration worked relentlessly afterward to pretend that it never even existed…

Did Chief Illiniwek ever make a sound?

He will – in absentia, of course – this Saturday afternoon at Memorial Stadium when thousands of Fighting Illini fans bellow “CHIEF” in unison following the band’s halftime performance during the team’s football season opener against Arkansas State.

Yes, five seasons after he was officially retired by the university under duress from the NCAA, Chief Illiniwek – the school’s revered (and embattled) symbol from 1926 to 2007 – remains alive and well in the hearts, minds and voices of many Illinois alumni and fans.

The same, however, unfortunately can’t be said today for free speech and freedom of expression at the University of Illinois. Not with the latest disturbing twist in the administration’s ongoing – and utterly nonsensical – crusade to wipe out all vestiges of the Chief.

Now by dictating what band members can and cannot wear.

“It’s a little Orwellian,” former Chief Illiniwek Steve Raquel, of Naperville, said Wednesday night about the university’s latest assault upon the memory of the figure he once portrayed. “And it’s very unfair.”

Since the Chief’s retirement in 2007, members of the Marching Illini band have been disallowed from wearing clothing that bears any Chief Illiniwek imagery during official performances. Considering that the Chief has been retired from halftime performances at Memorial Stadium and the symbol’s controversy, that’s understandable.

What’s not, though, is that this summer the university has decided to extend that ban to the point where it’s now infringing on students’ rights of expression at a public, state-funded school.

According to two current Marching Illini band members that I spoke to this past week, the university’s new band director Barry L. Houser, who replaced longtime director Dr. Peter L. Griffin, informed section leaders prior to the start of rehearsals in August that all band members are now forbidden from wearing any apparel that features the name or image of Chief Illiniwek during practice.

“Practice,” as Allen Iverson might say. “We’re talking about practice.”

The two Marching Illini members, who asked to remain anonymous so as to not jeopardize their standing in the band, said the mandate – which they believe came from above Houser’s head – has rankled many members of the Marching Illini, who feel that the school has now simply taken things too far regarding the Chief.

“It’s been relatively reasonable up until this point,” one band member said about the band’s policy regarding Chief Illiniwek apparel. “People understand that the school doesn’t want us to wear anything with the Chief during performances, but a lot are upset about them doing this for rehearsal. It’s very frustrating.”

Professor Houser could not be reached for comment on Wednesday. But the students said the rationale explained to them regarding the ban was that if a band member is seen wearing clothing featuring the Chief it could be interpreted by the media or other outsiders that, as a whole, the Marching Illini – with whom Chief Illiniwek performed during for 81 years – remains pro-Chief.

Now, if that sounds like a ridiculous reach to you, well, you’re not alone.

“With the wide range of views that people at the university hold on many issues, it’s interesting that the university would compel band members to not wear clothing with Chief insignias,” Raquel said. “What if somebody wore a rainbow T-shirt during practice, or a pro-Obama T-shirt, or an anti-Obama one? Would anyone assume that the entire Marching Illini was represented by that shirt?”

The two band members I spoke to said that besides wearing clothing flexible enough to march in, there are no other regulations placed on what can and cannot be worn during practice.

“People wear T-shirts during rehearsals all the time that say, ‘Marching Illini Bar Crawl 2010,’ which was an event not officially supported by the band,” one student said. “And that’s OK. But a Chief shirt is not.”

The students said that things have gone as far with the ban that two Marching Illini members recently were informed that they should go home from practice at lunch to change clothes.

The reason? Well, the University of Illinois T-shirts they had on featured Chief Illiniwek logos – that were one-inch in size.

“One inch,” stressed one student I spoke with.

The pair of Marching Illini members also said that the university is asking students to do the dirty work when it comes to enforcing the ban. Each day, section leaders are expected to police the practice apparel that’s worn by their fellow band members, the students said.

“Professor Houser was asked how section leaders are supposed to go about enforcing this,” one band member explained. “He was silent for several seconds before kind of laughing and saying, ‘Well, that’s your problem.’ But he never answered the question.”

The students made it clear that no Marching Illini members have ever worn T-shirts during practice that featured messages such as “Bring Back the Chief” or “Illiniwek Forever.” Rather, they said, the band members have been respectful of the school’s decision to retire Chief Illiniwek.

To which, I’d argue much more respectful than the school has been towards Chief Illiniwek and his supporters.

“To me, it’s sad,” added Michael Gamage, a five-year member of the Marching Illini, who graduated from Illinois this past spring. “Even if the Chief is gone, it’s still a valid part of Illini history. But with the way that the university is handling things, it’s like they’re trying to pretend that the Chief never even existed.

“I mean, if someone wears a shirt that does nothing but express school pride and has one little Chief logo, that’s not OK? I’m sorry, but that doesn’t make any sense.”

No, it doesn’t. At least when the university opted to retire Chief Illiniwek in 2007, it had legitimate reason (the threat of NCAA sanctions). Today, though, there’s no reasonable rationale for the war that the school continues to wage against the Chief and his memory.

The most disturbing thing is that this battle is now extending well beyond just the Chief and also placing a target on free speech and expression at the state’s flagship university. Last October, the university also threatened a lawsuit against the Students for Chief Illiniwek organization when it scheduled an unofficial Chief Illiniwek performance at Assembly Hall. The suit was not carried out.

“Is tolerance alive or not alive at the University of Illinois?” Raquel asked on Wednesday. “That word seems to have changed. Now it seems that tolerance means that whatever my view is, you’re going to accept it, too.”

Well, when it comes to Chief Illiniwek and the University of Illinois, that certainly does seem to be the case. And whether you’re pro-Chief, anti-Chief or indifferent on the whole thing, I think we should all be able to agree that such a mindset isn’t something healthy to, you know, put into practice.

davewisch Wisch: Free Speech Joins Chief Illiniwek As Target At Illinois

Dave Wischnowsky

If nothing else, Dave Wischnowsky is an Illinois boy. Raised in Bourbonnais, educated at the University of Illinois and bred on sports in the Land of Lincoln, he now resides on Chicago’s North Side, just blocks from Wrigley Field. Formerly a reporter and blogger for the Chicago Tribune, Dave currently writes a syndicated column, The Wisch List, which you can check out via his blog at http://www.wischlist.com. Read more of his CBS Chicago blog entries here.

  • Larry Horse's Arse

    Quick, call the P.C. Police!

    With all of their troubles and challenges, THIS is what the administration focuses on???

    • Bronzo

      WOW seem a little heavy handed by the Uof I administration.

      I totally agreee with you LHA with all the problems ,troubles, challenges the students, and schools face today they choose to focus on this!!??


  • tom Sharp

    What a bunch of Nazis!!! This place is just as corrupt and dictatorial as the Legislature! I bet a bunch of Islamic extremists would be allowed to protest anything they want and be protected by the same people making this decision.

  • Dean

    Every member of the band should wear Kansas City Chiefs’ apparel to practice.

    • Joel

      This certainly seems reasonable; but the next thing you know, the administration will simply ban all forms of sports logos featuring native american imagery. Sad

    • Eva K. Hess Cobble

      LOLOLOL…..I love that idea…..I live in Burlington KS now, but from Charleston IL….If anyone wants to donate to the cause, I will be glad to hand deliver the KC Chief’s shirts to the band!!!

  • RSMBob

    KC Chiefs, Peoria Chiefs, Florida State Seminoles, Washington Redskins (are you kidding me?), Atlanta Braves, Utah Utes, Chicago Blackhawks…they ought to have a practice day where they wear any of there.

    Wow…just wow. Very disappointed in the administration of my alma mater.

  • Cheez

    Lest we forget that Arkansas State once had the nicknames “Indians”. I’m sure that would go over quite nicely during practice this week.


    Yes, the NCAA had the right to ban the chief from all official functions or any function where a scholarship is granted.
    There had better not be a single rebel flag at any southern institution. Not one “stars and bars” on a saxophone case.
    What’s a runnin’ rebel, anyway?
    The university doesn’t want to spend any more court money on it, so, they have to take the easy way out. Some attorney will file suit, and they’ll lose, and nothing will be accomplished. That is how the whole mess began.

  • Sam Millsap

    To correct a statement you made regarding bar crawl shirts, never in my own years as a member of the MI have I seen a bar crawl shirt (and I am familiar with the designs of years 2006-2010) that identifies the event as one held by band members. It has been known and understood well that it would be inappropriate to include “Marching Illini” on the shirts, and so as far as I can confirm it hasn’t been done.

    • Jean

      I have seen members of Marching Illini wearing barcrawl shirts at practice that were clearly from Marching Illini or Basketball band barcrawls

    • Dave WIschnowsky

      Looking at my notes, I believe I actually was told that it read “MI Bar Crawl 2010,” so my apologies if I unintentionally extrapolated Marching Illini from that in the quote (although, of course, that’s what MI stands for).

      • Sam M

        I have the shirt in my hands. It says “Barcrawl 2010” across the front.

  • Eva K, Cobble-Hess

    I am a central IL girl who for the past 8 years have followed ILLINI basketball. I have never attended school at the U of I, but me and my family are total fans of ILLINI BBall. It irritates all of us to no end how the chief has been totally disrespected over this REDICULOUS claim from the beginning. If memory serves me, the whole controversy was started from a very small group of students/people NOT of American Indian blood. I have yet to hear or see any American Idian give complaint. The CHIEF IS ALL ABOUT PRIDE IN SPIRIT OF THE SCHOOL AND THE STATE OF ILLINOIS!!!– NOT PREJUDICE!!! I was in grade school, jr & sr. high school marching bands, and our mascot was & still is the Trojan warrior….NOT the condom as other schools poke fun at!! You don’t see the state high school association making Charleston IL high school change our mascot just because the NAME now has a sexual meaning!!! IF the U of I marching band would grow some CHIEF balls, they should conter sue the school for hindering the “freedom of speech”….

    • Gaerin

      This entertains me to no end.

  • Anonymous

    I would like to have clarified that the comment after the pause from Professor Houser was a joke and after everyone chuckled, he said that we would handle it as the situation arose, still never really answering the question.

  • Wetscheid

    This is what happens when everyone running then university are broughtnin from somewhere else. They do not feel thenwaybalumni do about thiis issue.

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    […] Wisch: Free Speech Joins Chief Illiniwek As Target At IllinoisIf a beloved symbol represented a major public university for eight decades before its retirement, but the administration worked relentlessly afterward to pretend that it never even existed … Did Chief Illiniwek ever make a sound? (read more) […]

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  • OnCampus

    This has little to do with Native Americans or, for that matter, the image of the university. It’s about cash. The NCAA has prohibited universities with Native American mascots from hosting NCAA sanctioned tournaments – of course both the campus and the real estate developer who owns the hotel on campus and is cozied up to the Chancellor’s office will lose money when that doesn’t happen…draw your own conclusions.


    Wanting to make money off of hotel investments is not wrong. We can speculate why the NCAA cares about school mascots, and there is a team of lawyers standing by to remind them of the negatives. It’s a distraction. I like the chief, but it wasn’t working.
    More money generated from sports revenues should keep the board out of tax payers’ or students’ pockets for a while.
    And, if the Cubs wanted to call themselves the N.L. athletics and wear green and purple, that’d be fine with me, if it meant a World Series.

  • John Doe

    …too bad no member of the band has a scholarship for marching illini. you know what that means? it means freedom of speech at a PUBLIC Flagship University. No one can file a suit against any one member who chooses to wear a Chief shirt during a rehearsal [since there’s no formal dress code, and most students go to rehearsal from class]. Everyone knows the Marching Illini have, and always will, side with the university and take no political stance. People need to stop being so damn pathetic and grow up. The Chief is not poking fun at anyone. He is a SYMBOL for the university, whether he is “banned” by the NCAA or not. I feel he should not be banned during a band rehearsal, because it is ridiculous. I’ve seen people wear barcrawl shirts, ‘I <3 soccer moms' shirts, and even religious shirts that say "Jesus" on them. Should those all be banned too? People who are against petty issues such as this need to get a life.

  • Chip Buckman

    I went to the U of I and graduation in 1997. The anti-Chief crowd was at it even back then. Minorities of all sorts, NOT EVEN RELATED to the descendents of the Illiniwek Confederacy, were the main forces pushing for removal of the Chief as the SYMBOL of the university. The Chief was a symbol, by the way, not a mascot. Mascots look silly. Mascots are meant to laugh at. Nobody ever laughed at the Chief. He was respected, and his war dance was a great rallying force, giving the student body and fans in attendance at games, much to rally around. Because a few vocal minorities don’t believe in free speech, and got the NCAA and thus the U of I to side with them, we now have no Chief.

    The fallacy of their argument, is that they cherry pick which things to be offended to. I was raised to think that ALL racist, sexist things are bad. I was taught that those things flow in all directions, from black to white, not just white to black. From woman to man, not just man to woman. Unfortunately these minorities only thought of themselves and their own grievances. They did not go around and insist that the Notre Dame Fighting Irish mascot (which was a true mascot by the way), be banned. That can be viewed just as offensive as Chief Illiniwek. The Irish stereotype is of a drunken worker who goes around picking fist fights. Well, that’s exactly what the Notre Dame mascot looks like.

    Funny how that was not deemed offensive by the NCAA or minorities. Apparently, justice only works in their direction and favor, and they could care less about other identical situations. That just proves their selective outrage, and their lack of fairness and dealing equitably with situations.

    It is not the majority culture in America that is causing all of the problems. It is the minorities. They are intent on running around with a permanent chip on their collective shoulders, striking down any thing they think “The Man” done wrong to ’em. This is a very naive, and childish viewpoint they have.


    • Anonymous

      The Notre Dame mascot is a leprechaun. As soon as the leprechauns start voicing their opinions in support or condemnation of such an image of their kind, I am certain everyone at the University in South Bend will lend them their ears…and their pots of gold.

  • K

    If the University wants to fork over some financing for practice gear for MI then THAT is when they can regulate what the students wear.

  • Lanita Briedwell Moss

    It sounds like the University is borrowing a page from the former Soviet Union.

  • IL Refugee

    As a parent I am sick to death of the schools feeling they can impose unbalanced, unreasonable regulations on our children that have nothing to do with their roles in my kids life. I am in the school administrations face constantly over thinking they are allowed to ignore my childs safety & my authority, but impose whatever they want. It has increasingly gotten worse with administration, teachers, staff… Excuse me that is MY child, not the bands, or the schools, or the states, or the Governments. Back the hell up, and you take being called out on it on my kid, I will be the worst pain in the arse you have ever experienced in your lifetime. If no ones makes a stand, it just gets worse. Especially the whole attempt to rewrite history& pretend things never happened by the “educators”. Teaching lies & fabrications is all that is-which is what most parents teach NOT to do.

  • Brandon H.

    Okay, I know the director and if he is doing this, he HAS to have a reason.. He is exceptionally reasonable, and is one of the bravest people I know of.. He has to unfortunately probably speak what the U of I wants him to, but he does always have the interest of the MI students at heart.. However.. On the other side, this is not just a suggestion, this is a mandate and something he NEVER had to do to us.. Horrible administration in Champaign.. However.. The spirit, and attitude our chief instills is one thing they cannot silence, or purge..
    He is an idea, an ideal.
    The more you try, the more they oddly enough… rise.

  • Eric 1990

    I stopped donating to the Alumni Association and refuse to go back for homecoming. UIUC is not the same place I attended… If the donations dry up, maybe the Admins will finally notice they’ve gone too far…..

  • Sarah 99

    How about wearing shirts with swastikas, or perhaps a nice insignia of a black lawn jockey? Any problem with those? I mean, they’d be worn with the greatest of respect intended. And if a member of the Jewish community or the Black community felt offended by either of those, then too bad–because they’re just being overly sensitive.

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