If you’ve started the week reading Loren Tate’s Sunday column in the News-Gazette (or Tuesday’s rebuttal) or IlliniBoard.com, you’ve probably read about the belted kingfisher, and whether it should be considered for the University of Illinois’ next mascot or not. Both raise good points about the generational differences between fans, lack of a new direction, and questions about the motivations of the new mascot movement.

Of course, if you’d been reading Smile Politely at any point over the past two and a half years, you would have already known about the kingfisher, the movement to make it a mascot, and the student group that created it.

Chances are, if you’ve ever tweeted about the kingfisher over the past two years, you’ve had throngs of angry people in your mentions. We’ve all been there. Well. Most of us.

So, here’s a millennial alumnus’s opinion on the bird:

Most importantly, above all else, Chief Illiniwek, and everything associated with it, was a modern day minstrel show, full stop. To many of us, that should be the end of the argument. It meets the definition exactly. The descendants of the tribe voted. They voted no. It was supported by the National Congress of American Indians. No amount of fans folding their arms at halftime or wearing t shirts with an old logo will change that.

But since we have to go deeper, we can go deeper: there are two trends that I have noticed with mascot discourse over the past 20 years or so, both of which are grim for supporters of Chief Illiniwek.

The first is that Chief supporters are simply losing momentum. 20 years ago, every other car at the drop-off at Monticello Middle School had a “Chief Forever” bumper sticker. Today, you can’t find one. The billboards aren’t up anymore. Chief shirts are becoming more and more uncommon at games. The number of people who fold their arms and chant (inaccurately) at half time is dwindling in the same span. In the 16 years since Chief Illiniwek has been retired, the decrease has been obvious; I suspect most long-time Illini fans have noticed this. If you haven’t, maybe you have selective hearing. Tate’s column correctly, I think, alludes to this sea change, but I see it from a different perspective.

The other trend that carries weight here is that, in the same way that support for the old mascot is dropping, support for the opposition is ever-increasing. First, a group floated the idea of “Alma Otter,” an otter mascot, in 2019. The hype got so real that the University had to disavow this sick photoshop, which was featured on SportsCenter:

Next, just weeks later, a World War 1 veteran, Champ, was floated.

Then, the kingfisher, a naturally orange and blue bird that is native to central Illinois (I can’t make this shit up, just look at that beauty), caught steam (again, I can’t stress this enough, more than three years ago). It has gone in front of the U of I Senate, passed a student referendum, been endorsed by the Audubon Society, been presented to the Board of Trustees, had kingfisher U of I socks sold at Dick’s because of an error, and even has a real-life mascot.

I swear, if you had been reading Smile Politely or following Champaign Showers on Twitter you would have known all this by now.

But the overarching point here, and one that Loren Tate came close to making on Sunday, is that these mascot ideas will keep coming until the minstrel show is gone. They will keep coming until the chants, dances, and costumes stop. Fans will forget about those inaccurate chants, or better yet, recognize them for what they were, and learn from that brutal history. We can start to change that history now, and these groups are. When it comes to constructing the infrastructure for that pivot away from the Chief, though, the anger from Chief apologists adds fuel to the fire. The tweets and profile pictures that support a minstrel show actively make many of us push for a new mascot more. The more they oppose it, the more many of us want it.

When you combine these two forces, both that Chief Illiniwek is losing public support and that alternate mascots are gaining public support, the conclusion becomes foregone: there will be a new mascot. Sooner or later. Maybe it’s the kingfisher; maybe not.

It doesn’t matter how much apologists try to deflect with the definitions of “mascot” and “symbol.” It doesn’t matter the logistics of the name change vs. the title of the team. I can almost guarantee that is not a concern of the opponents. The bar is so low that we can’t even get everyone to agree that a minstrel show is bad!

Looking at those extraneous distractions is looking too far down the line, and intentionally misses the point. What matters now is the actual issue at hand – the current mascot, and that we need a new one. I suspect they know that, which is why many have been so cagey to cover new alternatives.

It’s really that simple.

So yeah. Let’s have the kingfisher. It’s better than the last name. That’s not so hard to say, is it?

And to the rest of the media who cover the Illini, let me be candid: don’t be scared to talk about new mascots. It’s not a high bar to say the old mascot was insensitive and move on. It’s ok. You can say it. It’s factually true. Don’t wait on a press release if there if a real movement of Illini who are bringing change. Don’t let your fandom cloud the facts.

This change is coming whether you like to talk about the mascot issue or not. If not now, then the next mascot idea. Or the next. And that should be the story. Go Illini.