SBJ/February 13 - 19, 2006/Other News

No surrender from North Dakota in NCAA mascot controversy

The University of North Dakota is living up to the nickname of its sports teams: the Fighting Sioux. Almost six months after the NCAA placed the school on a list of 18 institutions using “hostile or abusive” nicknames, the university continues to display the nickname on hockey jerseys and football uniforms.

The solemn image of a Sioux warrior is still the university’s official sports logo. And university President Charles Kupchella is in no mood to capitulate.

From the campus in Grand Forks, Kupchella said: “The NCAA has no business taking the ill-conceived action they have. None. There’s a lack of understanding that with this action the NCAA could set back relations between American Indians and non-Indians quite a ways.”

In August, the NCAA instituted a policy intended to eliminate American Indian nicknames and mascots it deemed inappropriate. The edict followed a four-year review of American Indian nicknames and their effect on college athletics.

Of schools placed on the list by the NCAA, three (Central Michigan, Utah and Florida State) successfully appealed. Two others (Midwestern State in Texas and Carthage in Wisconsin) were removed from the list after agreeing to modifications to the nicknames approved by the NCAA.

Of the remaining 13, three are still resisting (Bradley, Indiana University of Pennsylvania and the University of North Dakota). A ruling on these appeals is expected from the NCAA Executive Committee on April 27.

The NCAA lacks the authority to reach onto college campuses to strip nicknames from jerseys and hockey rinks. But the NCAA can deny schools from playing in postseason tournaments and from hosting NCAA championships.

The policy, which went into effect Feb. 1, threatened the University of North Dakota’s plans to host a Division I hockey regional in March — at Ralph Engelstad Arena, where more than a thousand Fighting Sioux logos are displayed. The NCAA agreed to lift the ban until UND’s appeal is decided in April.

The university’s prospects are dubious at best. The three schools removed from the NCAA’s list so far “were able to fully document [support for their nickname] from a namesake tribe,” said Bob Williams, an NCAA spokesman. The Seminoles (Florida State), Chippewas (Central Michigan) and Utes (Utah) each gave their blessing to use of the tribal name.

None of three local Sioux tribes (the Spirit Lake, Standing Rock and Sisseton-Wahpeton Sioux tribes) supports the University of North Dakota’s use of “Fighting Sioux.” Still, Kupchella contends that the university has positive relations with the tribes and that many tribal leaders take pride in the school’s respectful logo: a 17th-century Sioux warrior in profile.

“We have a hard time understanding why it’s all right for Florida State to come into town with a white guy dressed up as an Indian, riding a horse, leading fans in a tomahawk chop, and we have to do away with a classic depiction of an Indian by an American Indian artist [Bennett Brien, who was commissioned by UND],” Kupchella said. “We just don’t get it.”

In a statement explaining the rejection of UND’s first appeal, Bernard Franklin, NCAA senior vice president for governance and membership, noted: “Although the University of North Dakota maintained that its logo and nickname are used with consummate respect, the position of the namesake tribes and those affected by the hostile or abusive environment that the nickname and logo create take precedence.”

In UND’s 16-page document submitted to the NCAA Executive Committee, the university asserts a laundry list of arguments: That the NCAA is overstepping its authority, that the NCAA Executive Committee is relying on hearsay evidence and should visit the UND campus, that the NCAA policy fails to take into account that some nicknames and logos honor American Indians instead of stereotyping them, even that the NCAA’s policy is little more than political correctness run amok.

The university says in the document: “The nickname ‘Fighting Sioux’ and our logo no more stereotypes current-day American Indians than depictions of pioneers would stereotype the current-day white population. Additionally, the use of our logo doesn’t stereotype any more than the use of the nicknames ‘Braves’ and ‘Warriors’ used by sport teams on reservations here in the Dakotas.”

Whether such arguments will sway the NCAA is a question Kupchella isn’t even willing to speculate on, at least for now.

Mark Hyman is a writer and attorney.

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