Olson: Change University of Illinois' nickname now

AP file photo University of Illinois mascot Chief Illiniwek performs for the last time during an Illinois basketball game Feb. 21, 2007, in Champaign. Illinois said the school is ending its tradition of playing "war chant" music during sporting events. Editor Eric Olson says they should rename the school's athletic program all together.[]

The University of Illinois needs a new nickname for its athletic teams.

Actually, it needs a new nickname decades ago.

I’ve never made a secret of the fact that I’m a U of I alum, and I can’t believe that my alma mater still is dealing with its Native American mascot problem.

When I was a freshman there in 1996, the school already was years into its unnecessarily long goodbye to all things associated with Chief Illiniwek and cultural appropriation.

“The Chief” was a cool-looking logo. But actual Native Americans were offended by the practice of having a white student dance in tribal garb at halftime of basketball and football games.

After claiming for years that aping Native Americans was really meant to honor them, the university finally retired “The Chief” in 2007 under pressure from the NCAA.

That was the time to just rename the athletic teams all together, after the examples of schools such as Marquette (1994), Stanford (1972) and St. John’s (1994).

But Illinois persists in calling its athletic teams “Illini.” There’s no mascot anymore because that would require depicting an Indian in some way. So they just use a big orange and blue “I.”

University officials are afraid of backlash from alumni and boosters. So they’ve been in this decades-long process of slowly ditching all the “Indian stuff” that had become part of sporting events over the years. This week, officials announced that the “war chant” cheer, which evokes tribal drums and a call to war, no longer would be played at sporting events.

In a letter explaining the move, university athletic director Josh Whitman wrote, “How we make people feel matters here at the University of Illinois, where we strive to be a beacon for inclusion in an increasingly polarized world.”

Whitman never really said whose feelings were hurt by the war chant –I guess you’re just supposed to know.

When someone says, “Hey, I find your appropriation of my heritage insulting,” there’s no effective counterargument. Native American mascots and cheers are a way of trivializing someone else’s traditions for our entertainment. Unless it’s your culture, you can’t stake a claim to it.

Whitman disappointed me, however, when he closed his letter, “Fighting Illini forever.”

I worked for the Daily Illini. I’ve cheered for the Fighting Illini. But I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s enough with the Fighting Illini. Keep the orange and blue, heck, keep the big block-letter “I” if it’s dear to you. Just call the teams something else.

It would be OK. Really. Illinois could do so much better, anyway.

Think about it: If we held a statewide nickname and logo contest today, would anyone choose a letter I and appropriated name of a group of Indian tribes? No.

It doesn’t matter what students 100 years ago decided to start calling themselves and their athletic teams. They have no more earthly concerns.

As it goes with Confederate monuments, so should it go with outdated school nicknames. We can retire them from use without erasing them from history.

I regret that my classmates and I didn’t make a change when we had a chance. But this is a new century, and we can make things the way they ought to be.

Do you think “Prairie Fire” would be a good nickname?

• Eric Olson is group editor of Shaw Media. Reach him at 815-756-4841, ext. 2257, or email