Friday, February 16, 2007

Students sue over NCAA Indian name ban

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Two students who portray the University of Illinois' Chief Illiniwek sued the NCAA and the school's board of trustees Thursday, seeking to preserve the 81-year-old American Indian mascot.

Dan Maloney, of Galesburg, and Logan Ponce, of St. Charles, sought an immediate restraining order to prevent the university "from capitulating to the NCAA," according to a news release from Maloney, Ponce and Mattoon attorney Brent D. Holmes.

The NCAA in 2005 deemed Illiniwek — portrayed by buckskin-clad students who dance at home football and basketball games and other athletic events — an offensive use of American Indian imagery and barred the university from hosting postseason events.

Maloney and Ponce said they believe the university's board of trustees plans to eliminate Illiniwek, which they claim would infringe on their right to free speech. The board has said it expects to decide the fate of the chief this year.

Neither Holmes nor Ponce returned telephone messages seeking comment. A phone number listed for Maloney did not work.

A university spokesman said he couldn't recall an active chief becoming involved in legal action over the long-standing debate.

"I'm frankly puzzled by the suit and the timing of it," said Tom Hardy, executive director of the university's Office of University Relations.

He declined comment on specifics of the lawsuit.

NCAA spokesman Bob Williams said that organization believes its sanctions are legal, and the group does not mandate that schools do away with American Indian mascots.

"However, we do feel we not only have the right, but also an obligation, to ensure our NCAA championships are conducted in an atmosphere free of racial stereotyping and one in which all of our student athletes, athletics staff and fans feel comfortable," he said in an e-mailed statement.

American Indian groups and others have complained for years that the mascot, used since 1926, is demeaning. Supporters of the mascot say it honors the contributions of American Indians to Illinois.

In the lawsuit, filed in Champaign County Circuit Court, the students also argue that by imposing sanctions, the NCAA failed to provide due process to the students and the university.

The lawsuit cites a 1991 state law that requires that hearings be held by athletic governing bodies before penalties can be imposed. The law followed an NCAA investigation of Illini basketball recruiting in which the university argued that it had never been able to confront its accuser.

Maloney and Ponce also argue that NCAA sanctions are arbitrarily imposed against Illinois while some other schools — such as San Diego State University and its Aztec mascot — face no sanctions.

The lawsuit follows a letter sent by a group of former chiefs last week to university president Joseph B. White, saying they feared the board would do away with the chief before they could have a say. They asked that they be given ownership of the chief trademark.

A member of that group, Tom Livingston of LaGrange, said Thursday that the former chiefs back the lawsuit but aren't involved in it and are not helping pay for it. Livingston portrayed Chief Illiniwek in the late 1980s.