NCAA Backs Off Threat on 'Seminoles'

The NCAA will allow Florida State to use its Seminoles nickname in postseason play, removing the school from a list of colleges with American Indian nicknames that were restricted by an NCAA decision earlier this month. The NCAA said it would handle reviews from other schools on a case-by-case basis. The University of Illinois believes that its nickname, the Fighting Illini, did not originally have roots in the Native American tribe and is working toward making a case that would allow them to continue using their mascot despite the NCAA ban. Melissa Block talks with Lawrence Eppley, chairman of the University of Illinois Board of Trustees.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Florida State University has won a victory in the latest battle over American Indian symbols in sports. The National Collegiate Athletic Association says FSU has long enjoyed a relationship with the Seminole tribe and, therefore, the school may continue to use its team name and mascot. That is a reversal of an earlier NCAA order to schools to stop using Native American mascots, names and imagery at NCAA championships.

FSU's victory may not help other schools much, though. The University of Illinois is still trying to figure out what to do with their Fighting Illini. Lawrence Eppley is chairman of the University of Illinois board of trustees. He argues the name isn't solely based on American Indians.

Mr. LAWRENCE EPPLEY (Chairman, Board of Trustees, University of Illinois): The indication is the earliest use of the word `Illini' at the university was in connection with the student newspaper right about the turn of the century or before. They had had some other name, and then they changed the name to Daily Illini. And the newspaper story written about the name change is talked in terms of, `Why the name? Well, it's short for Illinois, the name of our great state,' and so on and so forth. So it was a moniker that started to be attached to many things associated with the University of Illinois.

Fighting Illini was used for fund-raising efforts for Memorial Stadium, which is the football stadium in Champaign-Urbana that was dedicated to students and alums who fought and died in World War I. And for most part, that's where Fighting Illini comes from.

BLOCK: This does, at some point, get a little circular because if I understand this right, you were saying the team's named after the state of Illinois.

Mr. EPPLEY: No, it wasn't so much...

BLOCK: But as I understand it, the state of Illinois was named after...

Mr. EPPLEY: Yes.

BLOCK: ...an Indian tribe, members of the Algonquin Nation called the Illinaway(ph).

Mr. EPPLEY: Well, yes. Illinois--I guess, you know, the string runs out the spool sort of in an infinite way. You know, where do you start? Where do you stop? But Illinois is derivative of--or it's the French trans-alliteration of Illiniwek, and that's essentially the name given--or used by--I'm not--I don't know if we know for sure which--a confederation of tribes. It wasn't in and of itself a tribe; it was the confederation of tribes. So, yes, I mean, it does connect up. But I guess the derivation or the usage to the extent you can do this was, you know, not directed towards Indian tribes; it was directed towards the name of the state.

BLOCK: Well, you do also, though, have the famous mascot, Chief Illiniwek, who comes out and dances and he's wearing feathers and what looks like a buckskin outfit and he's got face paint on. I mean, that Indian symbolism is certainly all over the place.

Mr. EPPLEY: Yeah. The--and it matches up in the context of athletics. I mean, there's no debating that. The teams get called Illini or Fighting Illini, and then this halftime performance, which originated in the '20s, is one of the reasons why the two issues sort of get connected together.

BLOCK: Well, your university is no stranger to tournament play. If it comes down to it, if it's a matter of hosting a tournament at the university, which would mean getting rid of the mascot, no more chief, or saying, `We're not going to host it,' what do you do?

Mr. EPPLEY: That's clearly one of the issues the board's got to resolve. And I think we'll have to, you know, include in our deliberations, you know, the opportunity of our student-athletes for full participation in NCAA-sanctioned sports. So it's definitely something that we'll have to factor in and...

BLOCK: It sounds like you haven't quite made up your mind on that yet.

Mr. EPPLEY: Well, we--you're right. You know, it--there's--you know, the February 1 deadline, I guess, is--you know, will be approaching us. We're looking at the pronouncement, we're looking at the appeal process, you know, trying to figure out the strategy, talk about things that people can agree upon. This issue of lumping the name together with the chief tradition is not shared by many other than the real harsh opponents of the tradition.

BLOCK: Mr. Eppley, thanks very much for talking with us.

Mr. EPPLEY: You bet. Thanks, Melissa.

BLOCK: Lawrence Eppley is chairman of the University of Illinois board of trustees. He spoke with us from Chicago.

SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR, National Public Radio.

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