In the latest challenge to the NCAA's restrictions on Native American nicknames and imagery in college sports, Illinois walked away with what can best be described as a split decision.

The university can continue calling its teams the Fighting Illini, NCAA officials ruled, agreeing with campus officials that the name is "not directly associated with Native Americans" but instead derives from the name of the state. But Illinois lost its appeal on restrictions regarding its mascot, Chief Illiniwek, as well as its logo depicting a Native American in a feathered headdress.

Because Illinois continues to use the offending mascot and logo, NCAA officials refused to exempt the school from restrictions that take effect Feb. 1. At that time, Illinois will no longer be allowed to host postseason events or display its mascot or logo, which the NCAA maintains are "hostile and abusive," during postseason play.

In a statement released yesterday, Bernard Franklin, the NCAA's senior vice president for governance and membership, wrote that "the volume and frequency of contentiousness around Chief Illiniwek has increased" over the last decade, and that "the broad range of Native Americans perceives the Chief's 'fancy dance' a demeaning interpretation of their own customs and traditions."

The ruling was in response to a six-page appeal that Illinois filed Oct. 14, arguing that the NCAA's restrictions were "arbitrarily derived" and conflicted with the principle of institutional autonomy.

Illinois has several options. It can retire Chief Illiniwek, a fixture at home football and basketball games since 1926, and abolish its Indian head logo -- moves that would result in the school being exempted from the NCAA sanctions. It can keep the mascot and logo, and agree to live under the NCAA sanctions. Or it can appeal the NCAA's ruling a second time. Illinois officials said yesterday they would consider their options and set no timetable for deciding how to proceed.

-- Liz Clarke