Judge dismisses lawsuits over elimination of Chief Illiniwek 6-5-07

- A Champaign County judge on Tuesday dismissed a pair of lawsuits that claimed the University of Illinois broke state law when it eliminated its controversial Chief Illiniwek mascot.

One of the lawsuits, filed by the two students who last portrayed the American Indian mascot, also accused the NCAA of breaking Illinois law by imposing sanctions against the university's athletic teams over the mascot and allegedly coercing the university in the process.

Judge Michael Jones, an Illinois graduate, dismissed the closely related cases during a morning hearing. He said the university's February decision to shelve the chief was within its rights.

Tom Hardy, a spokesman for the University of Illinois, said it expected and welcomed the decision.

“The judge carefully considered all of the arguments in this case and found in favor of the university, as we expected he would, and we are satisfied with today's ruling,” he said.

NCAA spokesman Bob Williams said the judge's decision vindicates the organization.

“In no way did we force the school to take the action,” he said.

Dan Maloney, the last chief and the plaintiff in the February lawsuit filed by he and former assistant chief Logan Ponce, said he was disappointed. But he added that he was glad he had challenged the university's decision.

“One, I've done everything I can, and two, I know that I won't look back on this time 20 years down the road and think, 'Why didn't I do this, why didn't I do that?',” said the 24-year-old graduate student from Galesburg.

Maloney and Ponce have 30 days to appeal, but Maloney wasn't sure Tuesday what they will do.

In their lawsuit, which also named several university and NCAA officials, Maloney and Ponce argued that state law makes the Chief a legally recognized symbol of the university. The February decision to eliminate the mascot, the two claimed, broke that law.

The two years of NCAA sanctions, which had barred Illinois from hosting postseason sports, similarly violated the state statute, the students argued. The NCAA deemed Illiniwek an offensive use of American Indian imagery.

Champaign attorney John Gadau, the plaintiff in the other lawsuit, did not return a call to his office.

In his lawsuit, filed in March, Gadau also argued that the University of Illinois violated state law by doing away with Chief Illiniwek.

The chief decision followed two decades of disagreement over the mascot, played for 81 years by students who danced at football and basketball games wearing buckskin and feathered headdresses.

Many American Indians and others said the mascot was an insulting caricature, while backers argued the mascot honored American Indians.