Eye On Illinois: Mascot changes continue while government sends mixed messages

Though slow in progressing, the movement to eliminate school logos, mascots and imagery evoking Native Americans continues to gain momentum. Once it reaches critical mass, the scope may widen.

Consider Morris High School, where a committee Monday suggested the school board discontinue its mascot — a term in use at four other Illinois high schools but no longer acceptable for the professional football team in Washington, D.C. — after three meetings and a 17-1 vote endorsing a change.

Student body president Alex Duffy smartly noted the school’s student handbook prohibits “using derogatory slurs,” a policy seemingly incongruous with wearing one on a jersey. The district tacitly acknowledged the eventuality last summer when it installed artificial turf at its football stadium with a block M at midfield and the town’s name in the end zones and atop the scoreboard.

“When we did that, it didn’t make some people happy,” said District Superintendent Craig Ortiz, according to Shaw Media’s Rob Oesterle. But whether on the wall or fake grass, the writing sent a clear message: the mascot isn’t permanent.

This space has tracked the efforts of state Rep Maurice West, D-Rockford, to eradicate Native mascots through legislation. His current attempt, House Bill 735, is languishing in the Rules Committee with more than 1,000 other proposals, but it does have two co-sponsors (Reps. Jonathan Carroll, D-Northbrook, and Deb Conroy, D-Elmhurst) and eventually will get its due attention.

The proposal sets conditions for schools to use a mascot linked to native people. Among the terms are getting express written consent from a tribe — within 500 miles — subject to renewal twice a decade. Districts would have to conduct school-wide programs on native culture twice each year and offer a class focusing on Native American societal contributions. Those programs would have to be documented in a report filed annually with the Illinois State Board of Education.

West’s bill has a noncompliance penalty: exclusion from postseason tournaments. Though some might call for stricter penalties — West himself once threatened legislation to forcibly change the mascot Morris uses — it does seem unlikely a district would choose an old name over students’ chances to compete for championships.

Perhaps with HB 735 enacted, schools like West Aurora and Stockton would opt to end use of their Blackhawks mascot. But they also could flip the tables on West, who last month helped announce the state’s involvement, along with Chicago’s professional hockey team, in a $23 million project to revitalize Rockford’s BMO Harris Bank Center.

Pressuring schools to change mascots while committing public money to a private enterprise profiting off similar imagery is its own incongruity, one unlikely to go unnoticed by those intent on preserving local tradition.

Change is inevitable — but so is resistance.

• Scott T. Holland writes about state government issues for Shaw Local News Network. Follow him on Twitter at @sth749. He can be reached at sholland@shawmedia.com.