North Dakota taking NCAA to court over nickname

FARGO, N.D. -- State officials filed a lawsuit Friday against the NCAA to challenge its restrictions on the University of North Dakota's Fighting Sioux nickname.

Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said the lawsuit, filed in Northeast Central District Court in Grand Forks, alleges a breach of contract by the NCAA, a breach of good faith and illegal restraint of trade.

Stenehjem said the lawsuit seeks to allow the University of North Dakota to use the nickname throughout the school year without being sanctioned in possible postseason play, along with unspecified money damages.

The NCAA has banned the use of some Native American nicknames and logo in postseason tournaments, saying they are hostile and abusive.

Stenehjem said the NCAA overstepped its bounds.

"This is about a process to be followed by the NCAA," he said.

"Frankly, I don't think that anybody, regardless of how they feel about the result, should be satisfied or pleased with the process," Stenehjem said.

The NCAA has 20 days to respond after it is served with the lawsuit, the attorney general said.

NCAA spokesman Bob Williams said he was not surprised by the lawsuit, which was discussed earlier by officials of UND and the state.

"We are planning on aggressively defending our right and our responsibility, quite frankly, to conduct our own NCAA championships in an environment free of racial stereotyping," Williams said.

The state Board of Higher Education voted in June to file the lawsuit after two North Dakota appeals were rejected.

"This action by the NCAA keeps me from doing what the Board of Higher Education says we should do here," UND President Charles Kupchella said. He said the NCAA process was unfair and wrong.

Christopher Peltier, president of the UND Indian Association, said his group is focusing "on fundraising efforts and building unity," not the nickname issue. In March, the group passed a resolution opposing the Fighting Sioux nickname and logo.

"My personal opinion is to keep it a personal opinion," Peltier said Friday. "If somebody wants to be against it, that's fine. If somebody wants to be for it, that's fine. I'm not going to tell them they're wrong."

One official with the Standing Rock Sioux tribe wrote a letter supporting the university, but another opposed the nickname.

Tex Hall, chairman of the Three Affiliated Tribes, said tribal officials on his reservation will consider whether to file court documents supporting the NCAA. Hall said it is ironic that the state filed its lawsuit on "First Nations Day," which was designated by the Legislature to honor tribal contributions to the state.

A branch of the University of North Dakota Alumni Association set up a fund to help pay for the lawsuit after the state board of education said it must be financed with private money.

"Some of the bills are being paid from funds established by the foundation for this purpose. Other bills are being paid directly by donors," Kupchella said. "We don't even see them."

Other schools initially deemed to have unsuitable nicknames by the NCAA have won the right to use their monikers on appeal. They include the Florida State University Seminoles, the Central Michigan University Chippewas and the University of Utah Utes.

The North Dakota lawsuit says UND does not have a mascot and points out that that Florida State has a "stereotypical Native American" riding a horse.

"During every home football game, the mascot rides onto the football field and throws a flaming spear or lance into the ground at midfield," the state's lawsuit says. "The FSU marching band, called the 'Chiefs,' perform and lead the student body in what is called the 'war chant,' accompanied by a chopping motion often referred to as the 'tomahawk chop.'"

Allowing Florida State to use that imagery while abolishing the Fighting Sioux logo is "arbitrary, capricious and indicative of bad faith," the lawsuit says.