By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 16, 2006
North Dakota officials yesterday lived up to their flagship campus's moniker -- the "Fighting Sioux" -- and gave the go-ahead for a lawsuit against the NCAA over its policy banning Native American imagery.
After hearing a closed-door presentation from the state's attorney general, Wayne Stenehjem, the North Dakota Board of Higher Education voted 8-0 to authorize the lawsuit. According to Stenehjem, who will handle the suit on the university's behalf, the litigation will be funded by private donations rather than taxpayer dollars.
The NCAA's executive committee voted last year to prohibit the use of Native American nicknames and imagery in postseason play, saying they were "hostile and abusive." It issued a list of 18 schools deemed subject to the ban, including North Dakota (Fighting Sioux) and Florida State (Seminoles). While schools were free to keep the nicknames, the NCAA policy banned those who did from displaying their nicknames or logos on their teams' uniforms during postseason competition. It also barred them from hosting postseason games, which represented both a competitive disadvantage for athletes and a potential loss of revenue for athletic departments.
Florida State successfully appealed its inclusion on the list by documenting support from the state's Seminole tribe for the school's nickname and game-day pageantry. NCAA officials, however, rejected North Dakota's appeal, partly because the state's various Sioux tribes were divided on the matter.
Stenehjem indicated that the lawsuit would challenge the process that led to the NCAA's policy -- issued by a handful of university presidents [the NCAA's executive committee] -- rather than a vote by the full membership [roughly 3,000 schools].
"Regardless of where anybody stands on the actual issue, the process is one that nobody -- including the NCAA -- should be proud of," Stenehjem said.
While legal papers haven't been filed, the lawsuit should come as no surprise to the NCAA.
North Dakota's president, Charles E. Kupchella, wrote NCAA President Myles Brand a sharply worded, eight-page letter on June 7 outlining why he felt a suit may be necessary. Kupchella called the NCAA's policy "illegitimate" and said that it had been applied in an "unfair, fundamentally irrational, arbitrary and capricious" manner. He wrote that NCAA member schools such as North Dakota and others subject to the policy "deserve much better from the NCAA than to be charged with decades of being hostile and abusive."
Brand has said that the NCAA will defend its policy.
While surveys have shown that a majority of North Dakotans support the Fighting Sioux nickname, the controversy has polarized many on campus and throughout the state. Even if sentiment shifted, it would be difficult to remove the thousands of Fighting Sioux logos that adorn the campus's $108 million ice hockey arena, more plush than that of most NHL teams. It was funded by a benefactor and former North Dakota hockey player, now deceased, who insisted that Fighting Sioux images be proudly displayed throughout the arena.
Said Stenehjem: "UND has no mascot; they have a logo designed by a Native American. Compare that to Florida State, which has a white guy who dresses up as an Indian get on a horse and ride into a stadium with a flaming spear as everybody chants war chants. But that is permissible? That is what is just fundamentally unfair."