With Unofficial’s traditional first weekend of March date on the horizon, we feel compelled to address the current state of this long-standing University of Illinois student celebration of St. Patrick’s Day. There’s a lot of uncertainty surrounding whether or not it will happen in 2021, and what that means for its future.
As a brief aside, last year, we were this close to publishing an Editorial Board piece discussing how Unofficial should be embraced community-wide, a take not too dissimilar to the one we published in 2013. An “official” Unofficial could be a charitable fundraising mechanism that benefits our community. Villainizing students for drinking from early in the morning into the night seems a bit hypocritical given the celebration of other booze-based activities in the community (tailgating, Oktoberfest, etc.), so perhaps we should lighten up and just embrace it. If we did that, perhaps it could change for the better.
We’ve done some thinking since then which led us to pontificate a bit about this year’s Unofficial, and what this all means for its future. It left us asking: Is Unofficial done for or not?
IT'S OVER: REINVENTING IT ISN’T GOING TO HAPPEN
The community co-opting Unofficial would not work because as a student-heavy event, anything outside of that is the antithesis of the event’s purpose. During the entire 25 year history of Unofficial, the cities and the University have always pushed back against it. Chancellor Robert Jones called for the event to end in 2017 following the death of 23 year-old Jonathan Morales. That alone made the event gain momentum and popularity through the years, acting as pillars of rebellion if you will. It is the party adults aren’t invited to. Adopting Unofficial as a community-wide event would dismantle it.
Aside from this, Unofficial has a shaky history at best. Students have died, reports of sexual assault increase that weekend (though sadly most go unreported), hospitalizations, DUI arrests, plenty of tickets for underage drinking, the continued perpetuation of the racist mascot, and more incidents happen due to binge drinking at Unofficial. Injuries in any capacity should not be tolerated or overlooked, and this is a potential reason why community-wide adoption wouldn’t happen.
IT'S OVER: THE PANDEMIC WILL END UNOFFICIAL ONCE AND FOR ALL
With terrible incidents and accidents happening on this sacred-to-students weekend, you’d think that is why its popularity has been on the decline. Last year, The News-Gazette reported as much, stating that Unofficial's "attendence" was much lower than year's past, but that doesn't seem to be due to the incidents, just due to the event tiring out a bit. However, Unofficial survived 2020 despite a weak showing, sneaking in before pandemic shutdowns. While it remains to be seen what Unofficial 2021 will be, even longtime bar owner and Unofficial founder Scott Cochran says the event he helped create is "dead". He said it died last year, and it is our inclination to agree with him to some extent. The overall decline, plus this insight, doesn’t bode well for the event surviving through a pandemic into 2022.
Aside from measuring by way of popularity, now is not the time for Unofficial to happen in any capacity. At publishing time, neither Champaign Mayor Deb Feinen nor Urbana Mayor Diane Marlin have suggested they will declare emergency orders like they usually do; Unofficial is still weeks away, so they may do so soon. Per that News-Gazette report linked above, like most things these days, it appears to be a “wait and see” situation. If leadership catches wind it is indeed happening, it seems likely they would take action to protect the community like they’ve done in the past. We do not think the event should take place at all this year because of the pandemic.
IT'S NOT OVER: IT'S TRADITION, AND EVENTS HAVE UPS AND DOWNS
While it is possible the event won't happen at all, it is possible Unofficial will be celebrated in some capacity. There’s a lot of power in “tradition.” The strict COVID-19 testing policy at the U of I may deter some students from participating, but it seems likely those who do partake would do so in the form of small gatherings inside houses and apartments rather than in bars in Campustown. If bars are open, students will show up to slug down drinks on Unofficial.
We shouldn’t be surprised if we see tweets showcasing students lined up outside of bars. Since mitigations have been adjusted to allow drinking inside at bars and restaurants, we expect to see it on Unofficial.
IT'S NOT OVER: THE STUDENTS WILL DECIDE
In the end, students ultimately decide the fate of the event, not just in 2021, but in years to come. There’s certainly potential for Unofficial to storm back after a few years of dormancy, as 2022 is likely to be the year that people let loose after feeling cooped up for so long. Community and U of I leaderships, in addition to the pandemic, can try to kill it all they want, but if students want to keep it around in 2021 and beyond, they hold the keys. We shall see what they decide soon enough.
The Editorial Board is Jessica Hammie, Julie McClure, and Patrick Singer.