Fighting Sioux controversy simmering

GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- North Dakota political leaders are asking the NCAA to back off and let the state's flagship university keep its Fighting Sioux name and logo, even at the risk of potential blacklisting and scorn by other universities and its own conference.

Lawmaker involvement is a strategy even some University of North Dakota boosters question, and is unique among schools forced to decide whether to drop American Indian nicknames deemed hostile and abusive or accept penalties for keeping them.

North Dakota's debate appeared to be resolved when the state Board of Higher Education agreed in 2009 to drop the Fighting Sioux logo and nickname and UND agreed to phase them out by this Aug. 15.

But state lawmakers intervened earlier this year, passing a law that requires the university to retain the moniker and logo. If the school keeps them past the Aug. 15 deadline, it will not be allowed to use them in postseason tournaments nor host any such events.

Potentially more damaging, the Big Sky Conference, which UND hopes to join next year, has said the issue will complicate the school's conference membership and some schools may refuse to schedule games with North Dakota. Some believe that would lead to a broad decline in athletics.

Still, North Dakota lawmakers say hundreds of constituent emails substantiate tremendous public support for the current nickname. Some legislators have said they resent the nickname being characterized as hostile and abusive because they believe the name and logo are treated with respect. Others have said the change is being rammed down their throats by the NCAA and think the higher education board should have done more to adhere to residents' wishes.

About 20 schools with American Indian nicknames were targeted by an NCAA policy issued in August 2005. Some teams, like the Florida State Seminoles, were taken off the list when they received approval from namesake tribes. UND got the OK from the Spirit Lake Sioux, but were not able to get permission from the Standing Rock Sioux.

The NCAA hasn't budged despite North Dakota's new law, and officials have called for a meeting among state leaders and league and school officials. The groups were to gather Monday in Indianapolis, but the meeting was postponed after Senate Majority Leader Bob Stenehjem was killed in a highway crash last week.

The meeting was rescheduled for Aug. 12, just three days before the NCAA intends to impose sanctions on UND for the continued use of the Fighting Sioux nickname and a logo.

"We're looking for a final kind of clarity," school spokesman Peter Johnson said.

UND has not yet formed a committee to recommend a new logo. Rep. Al Carlson, the Fargo Republican who pushed for the new state law, said he's holding out hope the NCAA will reconsider.

"I think we have to explain to them why we passed the law," Carlson said.

History is not on UND's side.

Bob Davies, who helped lead a nickname transition as an administrator at Indiana University-Pennsylvania, said officials considered suing the NCAA or living with sanctions rather than surrendering its Indians nickname.

"We didn't see any long-term value in that, to be honest," Davies said. IUP teams are now the Crimson Hawks.

Robert Potts, who recently retired as chancellor at Arkansas State University, witnessed the nickname debate in two states. He was chancellor of the North Dakota university system when the NCAA announced its nickname policy and UND took the issue to court. He found himself embroiled in the same debate when he moved to Arkansas State, which eventually changed its teams' name from the Indians to the Red Wolves.

Potts said he thinks UND needs to resolve the issue or risk erosion of its athletic programs.

"If the university expects to build a first-rate program in all its sports, it can't do it very well if it's treated as a pariah by a lot of other Division I programs and it can't host NCAA events," Potts said. "The NCAA is just too big an animal to thumb your nose at and expect to be a participant in its programs and so forth."

Potts said some boosters who held out for Arkansas State to keep the Indians nickname reversed course after the University of Wisconsin pulled out of a football contract that could have been worth about $300,000, citing a Wisconsin school policy barring them from playing teams with nicknames considered offensive.

"It was just a hassle we didn't need," Potts said.

Davies and Potts said neither school's booster donations suffered.

Income tax documents obtained by The Associated Press show that the Indian Club Inc. at Arkansas State took in donations of about $1.5 million in 2004, the year before the NCAA edict. Revenue was $1.9 million in 2005, $1.5 million in 2006, $1.6 million in both 2007 and 2008 and $2.4 million in 2009.

"Even the most rabid Indian fans came around," Potts said.

The University of Louisiana-Monroe Athletic Scholarship Foundation saw a similar pattern when the college was in the midst of changing its name from Indians to Warhawks. Contributions were at $743,031 in 2004 and increased each of the next four years to reach $1.4 million in 2008, tax records show.

UND officials have declined to say how much it would cost to change its nickname, saying fees associated with marketing and public relations required to launch a new moniker are difficult to predict. Nor are they estimating what kind of money they could stand to lose, or gain, with a new moniker.

The Sioux Indian head is one of the most popular logos in the country, especially on hockey jerseys. But Johnson, the school spokesman, acknowledged there also would be new merchandising opportunities -- "if we get to that point."