NCAA officials yesterday denied an appeal by the University of North Dakota to waive restrictions on the use of its sports teams' nickname, the Fighting Sioux. Within hours, the university's president, Charles Kupchella, announced he strongly disagreed with the decision and would file another appeal -- and stood ready to file suit, if need be -- to defend what he characterized as the honorable intent behind the nickname that has been in use since the 1930s.
"The NCAA unfortunately has put us in a box where we now have to defend our honor, as it were," Kupchella said in a telephone interview. "They've called us 'hostile and abusive,' and we know, because we live here, that there's no such thing here. We'll have to prove it, I guess."
The issue of Native American nicknames -- perceived as a tribute by some and racist by others -- has been a matter of some debate for several years within the NCAA, the association that governs college sports. In August, its 17-member Executive Committee, which is composed of university presidents and chancellors, caught many off guard by banning schools' use of nicknames or mascots that are "hostile and abusive" in terms of race, ethnicity or national origin from hosting NCAA championships, effective Feb. 1.
The presidents cited 18 schools as subject to the restrictions -- all with nicknames derived from Native American tribes -- including Central Michigan (Chippewas), Florida State (Seminoles), Utah (Utes), Illinois-Champaign (Illini) and North Dakota. If any of those schools had already contracted to host an upcoming NCAA championship, the panel ordered, it would have to cover its offending logos during the event. In addition, athletes could no longer wear uniforms with "hostile and abusive logos" during NCAA championships or bowl games. The same restrictions would apply to the outfits of cheerleaders, dance teams, band members and mascots starting Aug. 1, 2008.
The restrictions were met with an outcry, particularly at Florida State, which filed an immediate appeal. Weeks later, the NCAA granted the Seminoles a waiver after university officials documented that the Seminole Tribe of Florida supported the use of the Seminole nickname and Chief Osceola as a mascot. Central Michigan and Utah also won appeals on similar grounds.
But North Dakota's bid for a waiver failed, primarily because two of the three federally recognized Sioux tribes in the state, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and the Sisseton-Wahpeton Sioux Tribe, opposed the nickname, according to a statement issued by Bernard Franklin, the NCAA's senior vice president for governance and membership.
"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," Franklin wrote. "The decision of a namesake sovereign tribe, regarding when and how its name and imagery can be used, must be respected even when others may not agree."
However, the NCAA relented on its demand that North Dakota cover its logos and nickname when it hosts the Division I men's ice hockey west regional at its Ralph Engelstad Arena in March, acknowledging that the contract was signed before the ban was enacted. North Dakota won't be allowed to host other NCAA championships in the venue, which is adorned with an estimated 2,000 Fighting Sioux logos.
David M. Gipp, a 1969 North Dakota graduate and president of United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck, N.D., hailed the NCAA's refusal to grant the waiver as "ethically and morally correct."
"My hope is that the University of North Dakota, rather than appeal the NCAA Executive Committee, will begin to develop a short- and a long-term plan that will allow for a new logo and new motto that will bring the university and the state system into the 21st century," Gipp said.
But Kupchella, the university president, said that to simply accept the NCAA restrictions would be tacit admission that North Dakota's nickname was indeed "hostile and abusive."
"We have to clear the air," Kupchella said, signaling that the issue is far from resolved.
Said Leigh Jeanotte, the university's program director for American Indian student services: "The controversy on the name here really is quite divisive. You have individuals on both sides who are good people -- very good people, but very strong in their views. It's almost like there is no middle ground. That's the sad part. It simply divides; it never goes away."