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Illinois students sue to stop NCAA sanctions

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Two students who portray the University
of Illinois' Chief Illiniwek sued the NCAA and the school's board
of trustees Thursday, seeking to preserve the 81-year-old American
Indian mascot.

Dan Maloney, of Galesburg, and Logan Ponce, of St. Charles,
sought an immediate restraining order to prevent the university
"from capitulating to the NCAA," according to a news release from
Maloney, Ponce and Mattoon attorney Brent D. Holmes.

The NCAA in 2005 deemed Illiniwek -- portrayed by buckskin-clad
students who dance at home football and basketball games and other
athletic events -- an offensive use of American Indian imagery and
barred the university from hosting postseason events.

Maloney and Ponce said they believe the university's board of
trustees plans to eliminate Illiniwek, which they claim would
infringe on their right to free speech. The board has said it
expects to decide the fate of the chief this year.

Neither Holmes nor Ponce returned telephone messages seeking
comment. A phone number listed for Maloney did not work.

A university spokesman said he couldn't recall an active chief
becoming involved in legal action over the long-standing debate.

"I'm frankly puzzled by the suit and the timing of it," said
Tom Hardy, executive director of the university's Office of
University Relations.

He declined comment on specifics of the lawsuit.

NCAA spokesman Bob Williams said that organization believes its
sanctions are legal, and the group does not mandate that schools do
away with American Indian mascots.

"However, we do feel we not only have the right, but also an
obligation, to ensure our NCAA championships are conducted in an
atmosphere free of racial stereotyping and one in which all of our
student athletes, athletics staff and fans feel comfortable," he
said in an e-mailed statement.

American Indian groups and others have complained for years that
the mascot, used since 1926, is demeaning. Supporters of the mascot
say it honors the contributions of American Indians to Illinois.

In the lawsuit, filed in Champaign County Circuit Court, the
students also argue that by imposing sanctions, the NCAA failed to
provide due process to the students and the university.

The lawsuit cites a 1991 state law that requires that hearings
be held by athletic governing bodies before penalties can be
imposed. The law followed an NCAA investigation of Illini
basketball recruiting in which the university argued that it had
never been able to confront its accuser.

Maloney and Ponce also argue that NCAA sanctions are arbitrarily
imposed against Illinois while some other schools -- such as San
Diego State University and its Aztec mascot -- face no sanctions.

The lawsuit follows a letter sent by a group of former chiefs
last week to university president Joseph B. White, saying they
feared the board would do away with the chief before they could
have a say. They asked that they be given ownership of the chief
trademark.

A member of that group, Tom Livingston of LaGrange, said
Thursday that the former chiefs back the lawsuit but aren't
involved in it and are not helping pay for it. Livingston portrayed
Chief Illiniwek in the late 1980s.