This week, students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, my alma mater, will take part in a historic, hotly debated vote about a bird. That bird is the belted kingfisher, a rare species that’s native to the state, and now has a chance to be the official mascot of one of the 20 largest public universities in the country. The belted kingfisher may soon represent my beloved Illini, partly because it’s orange and blue, the school colors, and partly because a student who grew up watching the bird at her grandparents’ home mocked up a clever design on Reddit. But it really has a chance because everything on the planet is a culture war, forever and forever.
Illinois, whose men’s basketball team is about to reach its first NCAA Tournament since 2013 (a fact this giddy fan simply cannot wait to mention to you), has not had a mascot since 2007, after the university banned the old one following a 2005 NCAA edict that blocked several schools with “hostile or abusive” mascots from postseason activities. Chief Illiniwek, who was not based on any actual Native American tribe or peoples — and from my experience in Champaign was portrayed almost exclusively by white frat dudes named Chad — was taken off all official university merchandise, and his “performances” at halftime, in which a war-painted Chad jumped up and down and whooped, came to an end. If you are not sure whether or not this is one of those things people are making too big a deal of, I encourage you to watch the Chief’s last dance, from February 2007. Do keep in mind that the person doing this entirely made-up “Native American” dance is this guy, now a financial adviser in Indianapolis.
I find that video, in the year 2020, nearly impossible to sit through. As an alum, it is embarrassing that a university (and basketball team!) I deeply love was ever associated with this “redface.” Fortunately, the mascot was banned more than a decade ago, so obviously I don’t have to worry about it anymore.
Heh: If only. If anything, the Chief has only grown in stature since his banishment. The student cheering section, full of white suburban kids who were toddlers when the mascot left, is full of CHIEF T-shirts, a particularly deranged local lawyer keeps buying “THE CHIEF: YESTERDAY NOW AND FOREVER” billboards every year and, insanely, the school still plays the song the Chief once “danced” to at halftime of basketball games, encouraging fans to sit and silently seethe over the mascot’s absence. The Chief simply will not die, one of the primary reasons students are constantly trying to replace him with something silly and harmless, like a belted kingfish or a squirrel or, amusingly, an “Alma Otter.”
What has happened? Why has the Chief stubbornly persisted in the face of constant institutional and cultural resistance? He has become, particularly among the white people from rural areas surrounding Champaign (precisely where I grew up), a cause, a way not just to appeal to boomer nostalgia but as a gateway to general aggrievement with political correctness and resistance to cultural change. A certain powerful (and old, and white) segment of the fan base has decided that the appropriated Chief was part of their heritage, and that “heritage” has been taken from them. This cultural phenomenon may be starting to sound vaguely familiar to you.
Culturally inappropriate mascots and symbols have long been a part of sports teams, from Chief Noc-a-Homa in Atlanta to Marquette’s Willie Wampum. The fight over these names has been going on for several decades; Tony Kornheiser, then at the Washington Post, argued that the Washington football team should change its name back in 1992, and team names like “the Red Men,” “the Redskins,” and “the Indians” have been slowly phased out, particularly by public universities and high schools. But Kornheiser’s argument back in 1992 that it would be “just a matter of time” until the names were banished forever turned out to be extremely wrong.
And a funny thing has happened: As public pressure has increased on these teams, their defenders — like Washington owner Daniel Snyder — have doubled down. They are in fact promoting the names more than ever, leaning into the criticism, painting themselves as their fans’ true defenders against the rampaging liberal hordes. (Snyder says he believes his team’s name “really means honor and respect.”) And it will not surprise you that in the last few years — particularly in the age of the man who said that he “know(s) Indians that are extremely proud of that name” when referring to Snyder’s team — the defenders have been particularly loud, and particularly emboldened.
The long-thought-dead “Redmen” name? School boards are voting to bring it back. Major League Baseball had attempted to make the Cleveland Indians lose their “Chief Wahoo” logo on their hats, but that has led to protests to the protests, which culminated in one of the more gruesome fan photos of all time. When the Atlanta Braves opened their new Suntrust Park (now Truist Park) stadium in 2018, many thought they would take the rebranding opportunity to phase out the team’s notorious Tomahawk Chop. But they actually steered into the skid, putting a massive drum in center field, opening up a Chop Fest area in right field and instructing the stadium organist to play the Tomahawk Chop cue at the beginning of every Braves rally. The Braves briefly blinked during last year’s National League Division Series, when they announced they would not play the music when the team was facing Cardinals pitcher Ryan Helsley, a member of Cherokee Nation who had said he found the Chop “disrespectful,” but the team is widely expected to get back to normal in 2020, bringing back its “Chop Fest weekend.” And why not? After all, in the wake of the Braves’ loss to the Cardinals the day after the ban, several Georgia GOP lawmakers called it “karma” for bowing to the critics.
The Braves are of course not the only team that does the Chop: You could hear it loud and clear during the Super Bowl this year, with the Kansas City Chiefs celebrating their team’s championship.
The Chiefs themselves seem to have no issue with the chant. “The Arrowhead Chop is part of the game-day experience that is really important to our fans,” a team spokesperson said before the game. You can argue that these symbols and chants are hurtful and damaging. But there are 50,000 Chiefs fans at the biggest sporting event of the year loudly, and proudly, disagreeing with you. The chant was not mentioned once on the television broadcast. What with Jennifer Lopez and the institutionalized appropriation going on in Miami, if hadn’t have been for the HD jumbotron, you would have thought it was still the ’90s. Things didn’t seem to have changed a bit.
That might be what’s most frustrating about sports’ ongoing attempts to end symbols and mascots like Chief Wahoo and the Chop and Chief Illiniwek. Every discussion of them — including, surely, this column — just entrenches their supporters deeper into their defensive crouches. While universities and corporations may, on an official level, attempt to get rid of them, if just for matters of public relations, they aren’t willing to take the steps necessary to truly eradicate them. They’re still profiting from the chop, and still getting cheers from the Chief Illiniwek-less Chief Illinwek song, after all. So that small percentage of older, white fans just dig in their heels and buy billboards and claim their traditions are being taken away from them, and then take it out on a perfectly nice belted kingfisher that just wants to be anthropomorphized into a mascot, shoot T-shirt cannons into the crowd, and take selfies with your kids. And it will go on forever. Fighting about the Chief was a constant in 1997, it is a constant in 2020, and it will be a constant for the next generation of college students, and the next one. The only tradition left now that anyone’s defending at my university is everybody screaming at each other about this every goddamned year. Who says sports isn’t just like politics?