The lengthy and heated battle between the University of North Dakota and the NCAA could be headed to the next level.
After a decision by the North Dakota State Board of Higher Education, UND has been granted the authority to sue the NCAA over the association’s policies on “hostile and abusive” Native American nicknames and imagery, which currently bar the school from hosting or participating in NCAA championship events without changes to its nickname and logo.
On Thursday, the board voted 8-0 to permit the university to sue over the use of “Fighting Sioux.” That decision came after an open letter from UND President Charles Kupchella to the NCAA last week, warning of the potential for such action.
Said Kupchella in the letter, “The NCAA leaves us no recourse but to consider litigation to make the point that the policy you have instituted is illegitimate and … has been applied to the University of North Dakota in an unfair, arbitrary, capricious, fundamentally irrational, and harmful manner.”
On April 28, the NCAA denied final appeals by UND, as well as Illinois and Indiana University of Pennsylvania, keeping all three on the list of institutions subject to restrictions from NCAA championship events.
“In denying the [appeals], the Executive Committee concluded that Native American references used by each university create hostile or abusive environments inconsistent with the NCAA constitution and inconsistent with the NCAA commitment to diversity, respect and sportsmanship,” the NCAA’s ruling stated.
The North Dakota board’s Thursday decision provided that no public funds would be used for UND’s legal expenses in the event of a lawsuit, the Grand Forks (N.D.) Herald reported.
“If there is a lawsuit, I think it is important that it be paid for by private funds and not tax dollars or student tuition dollars,” North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem told the Herald.
If a suit is filed, the attorney general’s office would likely represent UND, and legal fees would be paid by the private UND Foundation.
“I question that the NCAA, whose policies are supposed to be guided by the votes of its members, was instead led by the Executive Committee issuing edicts about what nicknames and logos can be used,” Stenehjem said in the Herald. “Beyond the issue of the name itself is how far they can push the universities around and not follow their own policies. The NCAA has a constitution and bylaws and process to follow, and they did not follow them. No matter where anybody stands on the use of the Sioux nickname, nobody should be very proud of how the NCAA handled this.”
Kupchella’s letter to the NCAA also cited the support of the Spirit Lake Tribe of Sioux, which passed a tribal council resolution in 2000 that supported the nickname under certain conditions, including efforts by UND to promote diversity and oppose racism.
In April, however, the chairman of North Dakota’s other Sioux tribe, the Standing Rock Tribe, confirmed that tribe’s leadership’s opposition to UND’s use of the nickname, citing a 2005 tribal resolution which “respectfully requests UND to discontinue use of its nickname and logo and supports the NCAA decision to bar the use of Native American tribal names in post season games by colleges and universities.”
North Dakota’s home venue, Ralph Engelstad Arena, hosted the 2006 West Regional, which UND won to advance to the Frozen Four. The venue, built with funds donated by the late Ralph Engelstad, is adorned with thousands of Fighting Sioux logos.
Prior to the regional, the NCAA declined to attempt to remove the event from Grand Forks since the contract under which UND was awarded the regional was signed before the NCAA’s current policy was adopted. However, the venue would not be permitted to host any further championship events under the NCAA’s current policies.