Fighting Sioux foes say keeping name will hurt UND

By Trevor Born
Bismarck, North Dakota (AP) March 2011

Opponents of a proposed state law that would force the University of North Dakota to keep its Fighting Sioux nickname say retaining the tradition isn’t worth the potential damage keeping the mascot could have on its athletics program.

UND is preparing to retire the nickname and a logo depicting an American Indian warrior in August under the terms of a settlement with the NCAA, which considers such mascots hostile and abusive.

The North Dakota Senate’s Education Committee spent more than five hours last week reviewing a proposed law that says the university must keep the Fighting Sioux name and logo. It also instructs Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem to consider suing the NCAA if it penalizes UND for doing so.

The committee plans to vote on the measure soon said chairman Sen. Layton Freborg, R-Underwood. Gov. Jack Dalrymple has declined to say whether he will sign the measure if it is ultimately approved.

If UND keeps its name and logo, it would be barred from hosting postseason events. Sen. Mac Schneider, a Grand Forks Democrat who played center on UND’s national championship football team in 2001, said the restriction “unquestionably decreases the chances of winning a championship.”

“The thought of politicians taking away competitive advantage that our student athletes have earned makes my stomach turn,” Schneider said.

The NCAA would also discourage member schools from playing UND during the regular season. The University of Minnesota has refused to play UND in all sports but hockey, where the teams both play in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association.

Brian Faison, UND’s athletic director, said Minnesota will likely leave the WCHA soon, when the Big Ten conference begins offering hockey. Without that conference connection, keeping the nickname could mean ending the schools’ storied hockey rivalry, Faison said.

The bill’s supporters downplayed what Jody Hodgson, general manager of the Ralph Engelstad Arena, called “these doomsday scenarios.” UND plays its hockey games in “The Ralph,” which is festooned with thousands of Fighting Sioux logos and other images.

Supporters of the bill say the nickname shows respect for the state’s Sioux tribal members and believe the NCAA could change its policies if a North Dakota state law required the name be used.

“We are operating with the assumption that, number one, the NCAA will not change, and I believe they will,” said Earl Strinden, a former head of UND’s alumni association and a longtime Republican majority leader in the North Dakota House.

“They were operating from falsehoods that were brought to them,” Strinden said. “I think when they take a look at this, they will remove any penalties.”

Jon Backes, president of the state Board of Higher Education, said he doubted the NCAA would bend.

“To speculate that the NCAA would change its rule on imagery because the state of North Dakota is unhappy with its policy I think is absolute folly,” Backes said.

The NCAA rules require colleges with American Indian nicknames or logos to change them or face sanctions, unless the schools receive permission from the affected Indian tribes to use the name.

UND sued the NCAA over the issue, and the two sides reached a settlement in which the school agreed to get rid of the name and logo unless it obtained permission from the Standing Rock and Spirit Lake Sioux tribes.

Spirit Lake tribal members endorsed the nickname and logo in a 2009 referendum, but the Standing Rock Sioux tribal council, which has said it opposes the nickname, hasn’t held a vote.

Standing Rock tribal members testified on both sides of the issue. Some said they would like to keep the name but haven’t had a say in the matter.

“Today, speaking to the youth and elderly on Standing Rock, they’re for the name,” tribal member Diane Gates said. “Our people have the right to be heard in the tribal council. Otherwise our rights are violated.”

Backes said the bill’s directive that Stenehjem consider an antitrust lawsuit against the NCAA is meaningless, because the state gave up any antitrust claims against the association in its 2007 settlement.

“I don’t think we’d be in court long enough to spend much money,” Backes said. “But the NCAA can spend money with the best of them, so it might still be quite expensive.”

Some also questioned if a legal battle may hurt the school’s transition to Division I, which it is set to make next year when it joins the Big Sky Conference.

Big Sky commissioner Doug Fullerton said in a interview that conference officials haven’t questioned UND’s membership status because of the legislation. But “there’s no question that this kind of ongoing controversy will hurt them,” Fullerton said, adding that he doesn’t think the NCAA will bend on its policy if the measure passes.

Fullerton said the Big Sky expects teams that win its conference titles to advance in national tournaments, which is less likely if the team cannot host a postseason game.

“There’s harm to the Big Sky by extension, but I’m much more worried that it’s UND being damaged in this whole thing,” Fullerton said. “We see UND as fairly innocent in this whole process, but we’re concerned about them. It’s hard for me to understand why the Legislature would damage a program from its own state like that.”

The bill is HB1263.