Hail to the Chief: tribes and tribalism in American sports

At the Big Ten Men's Basketball Tournament at the United Center in Chicago this week, ten of the eleven teams were allowed to bring their mascot. The outcast was the University of Illinois, the number one seed, the tournament winner and the number one—ranked team in the nation. Their mascot, Chief Illiniwek, was not permitted to appear.  The student who becomes the Chief at home games at Assembly Hall, this year an electrical engineering major named Kyle Cline, could only watch the tournament games from the stands in normal U of I civilian clothing (orange hair, shirt, pants, and socks).

The Chief has become a politically incorrect symbol for the Fighting Illini, and many want him to go the way of the now departed Indian mascots for the Marquette Warriors (now Golden Eagles), the St. Johns' Redmen (now Red Storm), and the Miami of Ohio Redskins (now Red Hawks).  The fight to have the University walk away from the Chief, is an example of ethnic tribalism infecting American sports. Illinois' Chief is the symbol of a tribe, but what its critics miss is that it is not an ethnic tribe, but one much broader. We have here a clash between a sports tribe and ethnic tribalism.  

But the first logical question to ask is why a tournament of eleven teams is called the Big Ten Tournament?  The Big Ten Conference contains several of the 'Public Ivies.' Surely, the league office can count.  Penn State, the eleventh school to join the league, has been a member since the early 90s.   You would think that somebody might have caught on by now. But the fact is the league is still called the Big Ten for a good reason. Big Ten is a recognizable and valuable name. It conjures up memories of old Rose Bowls when Midwestern schools (especially Michigan and Ohio State) could once compete with the likes of the now NFL—ready University of Southern California Trojans. Big Eleven does not have quite the same ring.

Alumni of Illinois, or Michigan, or Wisconsin or Ohio State, are of course,  loyal to their schools (their tribes).  But come the Ides of March and the Big Dance, the Men's basketball championship, if a Big Ten team were playing an ACC or a Big East school for the national championship, alumni of all  Big Ten schools, not just the one playing, would likely be rooting for their  league representative to bring home the honor for the league.  There are regional pride, and league bragging rights at stake. The tribe has expanded from the school to the conference.

I have a good friend who is a Duke and an ACC basketball junkie (this is a widespread and serious disease in the Southeast). During the NCAA tourney, all ACC entries are his teams.  Though Duke and North Carolina are fierce rivals, my friend was living and dying on every shot as North Carolina battled Georgetown in the 1982 finals. I too, was hanging on every shot, but I was rooting for the Hoyas, the representative of my league and my tribe at that stage of the tournament — whoever plays the ACC team. If a Duke fan could accept UNC as his team in the finals, it might explain why I, a New York Giants fan as a kid, would still root for the hated Dodgers against the even more hated Yankees from the American League in the World Series. I was a National League fan after all, and the Dodgers became my adopted tribe in the World Series, with the Giants long gone from the action. 

It should be noted that fan support for the League representative in professional sports has withered in recent decades, due to expansion, ever—changing divisions, and inter—league play, which has taken away some of the novelty of world championships between league winners.  Can anyone really get excited to support the Norris Division, the Central Division, or the Campbell Conference winner or representative?  So too, there are some advocates of the stance that you root against the team that beat your team (screw them), while others espouse the doctrine of rooting for the team that beat your team to go further in the playoffs, since it makes your team look better, if their conqueror wins it all. Such controversy is what keeps hundreds of sports—talk radio stations going in America.

I attended the NCAA regionals in Atlanta one year, and when it became clear that Virginia would advance to the Final Four, their fans started chanting (lamely, of course ): 'ACC, ACC'.  It seemed to me that this should have been at best a secondary chant after 'UVA, UVA'.   For the non— fan, this must all seem absurd. There are homeless people, starvation and disease in Africa, some Bush, somewhere, to ridicule. But for three weeks for the college basketball fan, the tribe (their team, their league) is a great unifier, not a divider.

This is not to create any illusion that everything is just dandy at the heart of college sports. While so far most college athletes can still fit their heads into the ever larger arenas being built (a contrast with some baseball players), all is not well, however much we tune the bad stuff out at tournament time.  This is not even to focus on the athletes who have committed plenty of mischief off the field, or leave college for the pros after a year or two (or for some basketball studs, skip college entirely).  I am not complaining personally about this last trend, since Duke star Luol Deng has helped make the Bulls respectable for the first time in the post Monica Lewinsky era.

The college presidents do not always set a shining example either. The Southwest Conference and the Big Eight had a corporate style merger a decade ago and formed the Big Twelve. To get the combined total of teams down to a manageable and somewhat resonant number, some members had to go. Behaving much like the ruthless CEO of a leveraged buyout firm (think Henry Kravis in Barbarians at the Gate), the league discarded a few assets (read as schools or teams) from the Southwest Conference, banishing them to minor conferences.

This past year witnessed a bidding war for the University of Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College between their old conference, the Big East, and their new one, the Atlantic Coast Conference.  The battle was not over which conference had better intra—school library borrowing arrangements.  The three schools moved to the stronger football conference (the ACC), with the lure of two slots, not one entry into the Bowl Championship Series, and the payout of tens of millions to the League (and its schools) for each team that makes it to a BCS game.  The regular season TV package for the ACC will sell for much more too, with perennial national power Miami now part of the league, to accompany its instate rival Florida State, and Boston added as a major media market. And with twelve teams, the ACC will now be able to have an NCAA—sanctioned league championship game.  Bringing in Penn State was also good for the Big Ten Conference treasury. It added Philadelphia and Pittsburgh as media markets for the conference. That was worth millions for league TV deals.

But the money aspect comes into play only because there is a product to which fans have allegiance.  The National Hockey League is now testing whether fans will completely disappear if both the league and players are stupid enough to manage to miss an entire season of play.

In college and professional sports, the people who stand together for their old alma mater or current school, or favorite pro team, share a common tie.  Race, gender, ethnicity, religion, political preference, or even place of birth or current domicile did not make one a member of Red Sox Nation in the glorious October of 2004.  The only qualification for membership was allegiance to the team. Our tribe is our team and those who back it. It is simple really. It is why you can walk into a sports bar anywhere in America, and more easily fit in as a stranger than in almost any other setting. It is why it is natural to borrow the USA Today sports section from a fellow airplane traveler (begin by leaning your neck in towards the other gentleman's open sports section). It is understood why you might be interested.  Try to find a hotel room in Las Vegas this weekend (I did, and I couldn't), as college basketball fans flock to the sports books in the big casinos to watch and gamble on four games simultaneously during the NCAA March Madness.

Fans at a sports bar might be 90—95% loyal to the home team (their tribe), but even a fan of the visiting team will earn respect for his walking into the lions den and showing the wrong colors.  There were Yankee fans at Fenway in October and Red Sox fans at Yankee Stadium.  Yes, they were showered with off color abuse (in the case of Yankee fans, all deserved). But what did they expect — roses and hosannas? Get real.  And admittedly there are some psychos in the world of sports — both players and fans. Here in Chicago, we had the father—son team who assaulted a coach at a Sox game. And then there is Ron Artest, starring in the video Malice at the Palace.  But most sports fans root because they have an allegiance and loyalty to a team (or their tribe), a positive character trait I think.

The denigrators of Chief Illiniwek do not understand the power of allegiance and loyalty.  They are not interested in anything that might build ties beyond the politically—designated group, or race, or gender, or sexual preference category. The Chief does not demean Indians. The critics who claim so, know little or nothing of the tradition surrounding the mascot. The Chief officially stands for 'spirit, courage, strength, bravery, honor and loyalty.' I know this for I have a Chief tee shirt I wore at the United Center this weekend which surrounds the chief's dignified head with these words, noble qualities all of them.

The critics know only that a student dresses up as an Indian and if 2,000 high schools, and colleges have dropped Indian nicknames the past few decades, then Illinois must be a throwback to preserve this insensitive assault on native Americans. The Chicago Tribune ran an article last week on the Chief controversy in which a leading advocate to get rid of Chief Illiniwek, (an American Indian woman),  spoke of how the Chief eroded the self esteem of her teenage children when she lived in Champaign. I daresay self esteem erosion may not be the only real problem here.

The Fighting Illini fans should not have to apologize for their traditions. This is not Southeast Oklahoma State (the Savages), or Carthage College (the Redmen). Chief Illiniwek does not degrade American Indians.  The Illinois mascot and team name fits more with the Central Michigan Chippewas, the University of Alaska, Fairbanks Nanooks,  the San Diego State Aztecs,  the North Adams State Mohawks, and by far the best known, the Florida State Seminoles. There is history, and a sense of place as well as tradition in these names.

Of course, the Indians have had a pretty bum deal throughout American history. I do not need Howard Zinn or Ward Churchill to tell me that. And the casinos do not mean we are all even on settling scores. But anybody who tells you that it was all kumbayah amongst the peace—loving tribes, back before Columbus made his voyages, or before the white man began to settle the interior, is romanticizing history. Braves (Alcorn State), Red Raiders (Texas Tech), Warriors (Keuka College), Redmen, Fighting Sioux (University of North Dakota) speak to a history of warfare on the continent. And it was not all one—way.  There was some serious scalping done in the Illinois territory well before anybody tried it outside the stadiums and arenas in Champaign or Chicago. 

There are many thousands of sports teams with animal names.  Will PETA be next to step into this arena?  Maybe Fighting Tigers or War Eagles is disrespectful, and feeds the abuse of animals that is so present in our society.  What about the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame? Aren't we trying to make peace in Northern Ireland?  Why aren't Notre Dame professors and the IRA seeking to get rid of that name? Isn't it as 'demeaning' as Fighting Illini?   Americans for Peace Now might object, but Dennis Prager says he would be proud if a team were called the Fighting Jews.  Some ancient stereotypes might go out the window with that one. 

I think the attack on Indian mascots and team names is indicative of people with too much free time (a group which includes most academics), and too easily obsessed with societal sleights. 

For the defenders of the Chief, the Fighting Illini's great season is likely to weaken the naysayers for at least a few more years. If Coach Weber can make Illinois a consistent national basketball power, the critics will be silenced a while longer. Students voted overwhelmingly (more than two to one) to keep the Chief last year, and the Trustees, despite pressure from their lefty faculties, and some American Indian groups, have resisted any change so far.

But the anti—Indian nickname forces have been winning in many places and to use a popular term of the left — silencing the Indian war cries.  They are practicing ethnic tribalism. In their worldview, we are each members of ethnic, or racial, or religious groups, and nothing more, so don't dare offend my group or my neighbor's group. No offense is the first rule of life for them. But on the margin, something always offends. 

Marquette is considering restoring the Warriors name. Don't bet on this one happening. The University of Wisconsin will only play Illinois because the Big Ten conference requires it. Otherwise it is prohibited from competing against teams with 'offensive' Indian names.  There were protests from the always predictably humorless lefties at the University of Oregon this year, demanding that their basketball team refuse to play Illinois because the Chief is still the Illinois mascot. This protest occurred despite the fact that the Oregon people knew the Chief would not appear at the game at the United Center (where the Illini made sitting ducks of the Ducks).

The PC forces have been winning this small battle of the mascots, and will continue to apply pressure. For those of you who want to fight back, I am told that if you go to Pekin, Illinois, and find the right sporting goods store, that you can request to be taken to the back room.  There you can buy tee shirts, sweatshirts, and team jackets for the Pekin High School teams from years back. Check an old world map or globe first so you will understand the old team name.  Pekin is at the same latitude as the capital of China, and before Communism the spelling of Beijing was not standardized. "Pekin" was one common variant.  These old—style tee shirts and jackets say 'Pekin Chinks.'

I know. Not funny. Degrading and humiliating. And I can't even imagine what the mascot looked like. If all this really offends you, I think you need to get out more, and get a life.  Do the chop at a Braves game next season. Even Jane Fonda did it on national TV when her then—husband owned that Braves and they were in the World Series.

Oh yes, Illini over Duke in the final.

Thanks to John Hill for research on sports teams with Indian names.