North Dakota to sue NCAA over mascot ruling

WILLISTON, N.D. -- The University of North Dakota plans to sue the NCAA to avoid penalties for using the school's Fighting Siou nickname and Indian head logo, which the association considers demeaning to American Indians.

North Dakota's Board of Higher Education voted 8-0 on Thursday to give its permission for the lawsuit, after its members met privately with attorney general Wayne Stenehjem for 90 minutes. North Dakota law allows public boards to hold closed meetings for legal consultation.

The authorization said the lawsuit must be financed only by private contributions. Stenehjem said his office would bill UND for the legal work.

Charles Kupchella, the university's president, said the school has had dozens of donor offers. He declined to estimate how much could be raised.

"They're coming from all over the country, not just UND alumni," Kupchella said. While the university has not yet set up a fund to take contributions, "I think we have [the lawsuit expense] covered," he said.

The NCAA has concluded that the nickname and logo are hostile and abusive to American Indians. It has rejected two UND appeals, saying the university may not use the nickname or logo during NCAA postseason tournaments and it may not host a tournament if it continues using them.

Bob Williams, an NCAA spokesman, said the university was within its rights to sue.

"However, the NCAA, through its member institutions, has the authority to conduct its championships in an atmosphere free of racial stereotying," Williams said.

"We have not asked any institution to change its mascot, nickname or imagery," he said Thursday. "We have determined that such imagery is not welcome at our championships, and we will not hold NCAA championships where it is used."

The association last year announced a ban on schools' use of nicknames, mascots and symbols in postseason tournaments that it deemed ethnically or racially demeaning. It said at least 18 schools, including the University of North Dakota, violated the policy.

Stenehjem said the NCAA's executive committee used constantly changing standards in deciding which colleges could continue using nicknames of American Indian origin and which could not.

The panel "decided, more or less by fiat, that some institutions were going to be subject to this rule and some institutions, for reasons that are not understandable, were exempted," Stenehjem said.

The NCAA's action violated its contract with its members, Stenehjem said. Its constitution requires that major decisions be approved by two-thirds of its college membership, and no vote was ever taken, Stenehjem said.

The NCAA has allowed some schools, including Florida State, Central Michigan and Utah, to continue using their Indian nicknames without facing any postseason sanction.

"There are those who are opposed to nicknames and who say they support the NCAA's action. They would have to admit, then, that they support the exemptions given to Seminoles, Utes, Choctaws, Chippewas," Kupchella said. "That would take some explaining, it would seem to me."

A number of Indian tribes, as well as faculty members and students on UND's Grand Forks campus, support dropping the nickname and logo, contending that they cause campus divisiveness. David Gipp, president of Bismarck's United Tribes Technical College, sent a letter to board members this week, asking them to forgo legal action.

"We would hope that rather than spend funds on a lawsuit, the funds were instead used to create more opportunities for American Indians, and all North Dakotans, to improve their lives and to promote diversity," Gipp's letter said.

The Board of Higher Education voted to authorize the lawsuit during its business meeting Thursday at Williston State College. The board's president, Pam Kostelecky, said the vote reflected members' unhappiness with how the NCAA has handled the issue.

"Our decision today was not based particularly on the logo or the nickname but on the legalities of the NCAA ruling," Kostelecky said. "There are really some unanswered questions that we have not been able to get resolved."

Pat Seaworth, a university system attorney, said the Board of Higher Education normally does not intervene in individual schools' athletics disputes. The board oversees the 11 public colleges in North Dakota's university system.

However, during a UND review six years ago of whether to drop the nickname and logo, the board voted to order the university to keep both.

The December 2000 vote was taken shortly after UND benefactor Ralph Engelstad, who was building a new hockey arena on campus, threatened to leave the building unfinished if the university changed its nickname or logo.

The board's nonvoting faculty member, John Pederson, a professor at Mayville State University, was excluded from the closed meeting. Pederson said he may request a legal opinion from Stenehjem about whether it was legal to bar him.

Seaworth said that because the North Dakota Constitution does not refer to a faculty representative on the board, Pederson did not have a right to attend the closed session.