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Big Sky: ‘UND, we have a problem’
Leaders of the Big Sky Conference told UND President Robert Kelley this week that continued use of the Fighting Sioux name and logo as mandated by a new state law has become a “concern” for them and could jeopardize UND’s joining the conference next year.
Furthermore, the ongoing controversy “has the possibility of destroying Division I athletics at the University of North Dakota.”
Writing earlier this week on behalf of the presidents of Big Sky member schools, league Commissioner Douglas Fullerton told Kelley that the presidents “are forced to consider the ramifications of continued use of the ‘Fighting Sioux’ name” and imagery.
“When the University of North Dakota was considered and accepted for membership (on Nov. 1, 2010), this issue was (considered) ‘settled,’ ” Fullerton wrote. “The institution had reached an agreement with the NCAA and the conference accepted that agreement.
“Obviously, today there is a new reality, and the question has to be asked: Could this lead to a time when league play and possibly league membership itself could be affected?”
In a telephone interview Friday, Fullerton said the presidents “were very intense” in discussing UND’s nickname issue with Kelley June 1 and 2 at the Big Sky Conference spring meetings in Park City, Utah.
If the NCAA maintains scheduled sanctions against the school and UND loses its “ability to be a viable NCAA institution, they don’t do us much good as a conference member,” he said.
In his letter, sent Tuesday and received at UND Wednesday, Fullerton also noted that all the other Big Sky schools have relationships with Native American tribes in their regions, “and the presidents feel strongly that if forced to choose, they would support the wishes of the Sioux tribes in this dispute.”
He underscored the point in the telephone interview.
“Our schools have great relationships with tribes in their respective regions,” he said. “There is no way we cannot support the positions of the Native American tribes.”
He was asked whether the continuing controversy could cause the presidents ultimately to reject UND as a Big Sky member.
“Very easily,” Fullerton said.
The Big Sky presidents are to meet again in October, he said. “We’ll keep the discussion going and see how this unfolds.”
Grant Shaft, who as a member of the State Board of Higher Education has been heavily involved in the nickname issue the past several years, met with Kelley and UND Athletic Director Brian Faison late Thursday to review the Big Sky letter.
“I was surprised at both the number of concerns and the severity of the concerns outlined by the commissioner,” Shaft said. “They made their position forcefully clear.
“Most importantly, they indicate that when we were accepted into the Big Sky Conference, they had thought the logo question was settled. … We assumed … they did not have any issues with the name and logo,” Shaft said. “Now it’s clear they have issues.”
As a keystone to its entry into Division I athletics, UND is to join the Big Sky Conference on July 1, 2012, but the university already is working with the other schools on scheduling, marketing and other conference matters.
Kelley and Faison declined requests Friday for comment on the Fullerton letter.
Big Sky ‘must take NCAA guidance’
The Big Sky is a member conference of the NCAA, Fullerton noted in his letter, and as such “must take very seriously any guidance it receives from the national organization on these matters.”
If the other member schools choose to honor the wishes of the Sioux tribes — one of which, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, has repeatedly refused to grant UND authorization to continue using the name — any NCAA sanctions imposed on UND “would also be observed by the conference, and additional conference sanctions may also be considered.”
Fullerton added in his letter that “even more disconcerting is the impact the continued use of the (Native American imagery) would have on the individual relationships between schools in the league” and UND, and he cited as an example a protest he said occurred on the campus of the University of California at Davis during a 2009 UC-Davis football game with UND.
Fullerton also noted that Big Sky officials and member school presidents “are aware of recent cancellations of contests” between UND and other Midwest schools.
Iowa has pulled out of a planned home-and-home series with UND’s women’s basketball team, and there is uncertainty in scheduling with other UND athletic teams.
“It is easy to envision this kind of boycott spreading to other institutions in the future,” Fullerton wrote. “Boycotts by individual schools or leagues will certainly have a negative effect on all of your programs, including hockey. Couple those issues with postseason restrictions and we are concerned that this state law has the possibility of destroying Division I athletics at the University of North Dakota.”
Kelley, Faison ‘surprised by tone’
When UND made the decision to go to Division I, finding a stable conference home for its athletic programs was a top priority. Joining the Big Sky, which has been around for nearly a half century, would provide such a home for nearly all the school’s athletic programs.
UND now participates in the Great West Conference in a number of sports, but the league is stretched from coast to coast and is more a scheduling alliance than a long-term solution.
In their testimony before House and Senate committees considering the Fighting Sioux nickname bill earlier this year, Shaft and UND officials warned that it could have negative consequences on UND’s entry into the Big Sky Conference and Division I athletics.
“We were chastised for that,” Shaft said. “They said that we were exaggerating these concerns.”
But Kelley and Faison “were surprised by the tone of the letter,” he said, “and I think that for obvious reasons they have a real immediate concern as to what this means for all the sports that would fall under the Big Sky umbrella.
“I don’t think anybody would disagree that if we lost our affiliation with the Big Sky, it would be one of the biggest tragedies to hit UND athletics in the history of the school.”
The commissioner’s letter “makes it clear they intend to follow the NCAA’s direction on this,” Shaft said, “which throws this back to the position of the NCAA — which has been, ‘Our policy stands regardless of legislative action in North Dakota.’ ”
The state board had been planning to huddle with Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem at the board’s scheduled meeting in Minot next week, to assess such options as challenging the constitutionality of the nickname law. But the attorney general has a conflict, so that session will have to happen later.
But the Big Sky commissioner’s letter “clearly brings more urgency to the situation,” Shaft said.
Rep. Al Carlson of Fargo, the Republican majority leader in the North Dakota House and author of the Fighting Sioux nickname bill, and Senate Majority Leader Bob Stenehjem, R-Bismarck, “still would like to meet face to face with the NCAA” to see if there is any willingness there to negotiate, Shaft said.
“I’ve indicated our willingness, on the part of the board and the university, to facilitate that,” he said. Gov. Jack Dalrymple “has made similar comments. He would like to get this wrapped up. But we would have to have some relief from the NCAA under their policy, which to this date they have not seemed willing to give.
“The difficulty with the legislation is that at this point in time, our only response (to the Big Sky Conference) would be that the Fighting Sioux nickname and logo are the law of the land in North Dakota, and UND is bound to utilize that nickname. I don’t know that’s what the Big Sky is looking to hear now.”
By Chuck Haga, Grand Forks Herald