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Archive for Friday, February 23, 2007

Commentary: Mascot the least of Illini’s worries

February 23, 2007

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If I were a University of Illinois student, alumnus or administrator, I wouldn't worry why a guy who proudly wears an Indian costume has danced his last dance.

I would worry why a guy who proudly wears a Fighting Illini basketball uniform would crash a car and then apparently leave a teammate for dead.

I would worry why this is the second Illini in six months to be charged with DUI, which does not stand for Driving at the University of Illinois.

I would worry why yet another Illini was arrested 10 months ago after an altercation outside a bar.

I would worry why an Illini from the Final Four team of two seasons ago once was suspended but not expelled for alleged involvement in a burglary.

I would worry why the Illini football program would recruit a player already busted on five drug-related offenses, a kid who soon would leave school and face a charge of attempted murder.

I would worry why my football coach had to defend himself against recruiting allegations and why my basketball coach had to defend himself against a growing perception that his athletes are out of control.

This isn't about loyalty. This isn't about "outsiders" trying to damage a school's reputation.

Police officers aren't outsiders. Investigators aren't outsiders. NCAA rule enforcers aren't outsiders. They are the guardians of scholastic sport, committed to equality and justice for all.

"Political correctness" is a pitiful claim. At no time did the NCAA order the university in Champaign-Urbana to stop calling its teams the Fighting Illini.

It did not insist Illinois kiss off its Native American heritage. It did not tell a Big Ten school to change its nickname to something less objectionable to the NCAA - you know, like Blue Devils or Demon Deacons or Gamecocks or Beavers.

It merely decreed that it was time for Chief Illiniwek to go to that great halftime show in the sky.

Therefore, at a basketball game Wednesday night, the Chief put on his moccasins for the last time.

And then there is the Smith scandal, which in this case has nothing to do with Anna Nicole.

It concerns Jamar Smith, a 19-year-old sophomore from Peoria who more than likely - Chief Illiniwek isn't the only one up a creek - has suited up for the Illini for the last time.

On Feb. 12, according to a preliminary police investigation, Smith got behind the wheel of a car after he and a teammate, Brian Carlwell, were seen drinking tequila and beer.

Smith crashed the car into a tree. Carlwell was found in it, unconscious. Smith was not found for the next 90 minutes.

He made no 911 emergency call. A blood-alcohol test reported Smith's level to be more than twice the legal limit.

University of Illinois students, alumni and administrators are true to their school. It would be to their great credit to demand integrity on a matter far more substantial than a costumed symbol's right to dance.

They need to call for a higher standard of behavior. They need a no-tolerance rule for student-athletes, as opposed to a continuing policy of boys will be boys.

They need a coach who will stand up - in public, not in a private meeting with the players - and say, "The next guy on my team who causes embarrassment to our school is out of here, case closed."

You want to pay tribute to a Native American way of life? Fine, act accordingly. Live by a code of honor. Take a stand.

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