The Chief debate at good old U of I is finally over and I can’t bring myself to much past a yawn, but I suppose I’ll rise to the occasion with yet another sarcastic essay about what I think the real issues are. While I do not speak for anyone but myself, I think this is a reasonably accurate representation of what many faculty do think, though they might not be brave/stupid enough to say so in public.

In short, the Chief was retired, not without acrimony. There is, no doubt, a hard core of loyalists who will be offended to the end and will doubtless declare firm intention to send their children to that great, unrequited rival, Michigan (where, despite what some people at Illinois desperately want to believe, they don’t actually give a rat’s solid waste orifice about Illinois, reserving the real hate juice for Ohio State). There are also many more people who weren’t exactly Chief boosters before who have suddenly discovered—for the time being, anyway—a certain romantic, I don’t know, je ne sais quoi? about the Chief. “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone?” indeed. This is not unlike the losing side in an election, combined with the inherent and understandable dislike of having someone else be “The Decider.” The first few months afterwards are often a bit dark for the losers, but most people end up moving on after the initial sting abates. (Maybe fans who feel their favorite band “sold out” is a better analogy?) In the event the football team is actually good in the fall, all will be forgiven. Unfortunately vociferous partisans don’t move on. Heck, entire societies (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) form their identity around decades- or centuries-old grievances.

The entire “debate”—I hardly feel this extended pathetic episode deserves the appellation, but I guess it will have to do—was started by a bunch of “new left” types playing the current national pastime, identity politics. (See also.) Identity politics used to be primarily a pastime of the new left, but has metastasized to other areas of the body politic, e.g., demands for ideological balance in the academy through affirmative action of… you guessed it, “certified conservative” professors. (Naturally such a demand could only come from a a former new leftie turned neocon who swapped one extreme for another.) Intellectually, I understand identity politics (perception being part of experienced reality, after all) but essentially loathe it on an emotional level. By no stretch of the imagination am I a Marxist, but I think the Marxist critique of identity politics, stripped of verbiage and boiled to the essence as “a waste of time,” is fundamentally correct. You always have to look at the opportunity cost. There is only so much room in the political sphere at any one point and only so much political capital to spend. You have to choose wisely. Here is a very nicely written piece by veteran civil rights leader Joe R. Hicks about exactly why constantly playing “the race card” doesn’t lead to productive outcomes.

The opportunity costs of the Chief debate were high. There are many things the administration and Board of Trustees (who certainly didn’t ask for the debate) could have done to make U of I better. Most important on my list is trying to deal with the constant pressure turning the University into essentially a private school due to chronic—and borderline unconstitutional—underfunding from the state that has left buildings on the Quad to rot, caused tuition to increase dramatically while cutting financial aid, which lead to the recent drop from 8 to 29 in Kiplinger’s rankings of best buys in public colleges, and so forth. The “upgrade” to the university-wide IT system which worked out spectacularly well—picking the pockets of many campus units in the process in mass quantities of lost staff time—is perhaps another. Instead they were forced into wasting a bunch of expensive time and effort on the Chief issue. It is a counterfactual to speculate whether either outcome could have been changed, but I sure as hell know that the many hours spent on the Chief issue weren’t going elsewhere.

Way to go, new leftist whiners, you win: You won a pointless symbolic victory and left the real problems behind, pretty much just like you always do. Let me give you a hearty “F— you very much” for it.

My guess is the administration decided to bite the bullet and get out of the whole sordid business while the getting was good. That’s because, like administrators everywhere, they’re first and foremost interested in peace, quiet and a steady cash flow, not justice (whatever that is—it’s so hard to decide, much like truth). Alumni donations are important but I’m not sure that canning the Chief is going to affect big donors the likes of Beckman, Grainger, Krannert, Siebel, etc., at all, or the big corporate money that gets their attention. And if these guys don’t want to pony up, UIUC can look to its most famous alum. I’m betting that even current students and recent grads will forget their resentments by the time they make enough money to start donating. Furthermore, new students—more and more of whom are from other states or are international and have no preexisting attachments to the University—won’t really know or care.

Given the correlation of forces (Marxist language, again? what is the world coming to?) in this debate, once the NCAA ruling came down, it is hard to say how else it would have gone. Lest we forget, the pro-Chief people—who weren’t exactly fantastic at playing their cards, unlike some other schools such as Florida State—managed to hold off the anti-Chief people for a long time, but once the University administration felt the wind blowing in the direction of “we’re not going to be able to partake in the big bucks of college sports fully anymore,” it was over. The NCAA is horridly inconsistent about application of their policies and I have a hard time discerning any rhyme or reason to what they do or fail to do but, ultimately, that doesn’t matter. Big money college sports has become a scam corroding the mission of the academy many ways. Consider how distance learning has been abused to keep money sports players in uniform. The connection between alcohol sponsorship and college sports isn’t trivial, either, and don’t think for a minute that bucks coming from the likes of Anheuser-Busch doesn’t affect decisions made by school administrations. As we saw with the Don Imus dustup, advertisers like controversy, but only controversy they manufacture or, at least, can control.

Honestly, I’m just glad l’affaire Chief is over. It went the way it went and ultimately it won’t mean a hill of beans, but the institution’s lost a bunch of time forever to this ridiculous issue. I’m even happier that I’m departing the whole school spirit/athletic department gravy train environment, so, very soon, it’ll be NMP… not my problem.

(I fully anticipate the hate mail. If I’m really lucky, I’ll get some from both pro- and anti-Chief people!)