The state of North Dakota on Friday filed a civil lawsuit against the NCAA over the association’s policy against the University of North Dakota’s Fighting Sioux nickname and logo.
At a morning news conference, North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem announced that the suit had been filed in Grand Forks County District Court on behalf of the State Board of Higher Education and UND. The state contends that UND’s contract with the NCAA is the Division II manual under which the university is governed.
Stenehjem said the state is suing the NCAA on three grounds:
• Breach of contract for failing to follow the procedures and process for implementing policies as outlined in the NCAA’s constitution, bylaws and regulations.
• Breach of good faith and fair dealing.
• Unlawful restraint of trade caused by the NCAA’s monopoly position in college athletics.
Stenehjem said the NCAA policy put UND in “an impossible economic predicament in violation of our state’s antitrust laws.”
The lawsuit seeks a preliminary and then a permanent injunction against the NCAA’s policy, as well as unspecified financial damages and attorneys’ costs. Stenehjem said the NCAA has 20 days to file an answer to the lawsuit and that a hearing on the preliminary injunction would probably take place within the next 13 days.
In August 2005, the NCAA Executive Committee implemented a policy against UND and 17 other member schools deemed to use “hostile and abusive” American Indian nicknames, imagery and/or mascots (UND has no mascot). The measure prohibited those schools from hosting NCAA-sponsored championship events or displaying Native American nicknames and imagery at those events.
“The executive committee that adopted this policy is not the group that has authority to do that,” Stenehjem said. “These are policy considerations that, according to the constitution of the NCAA, are to be referred to membership for a two-thirds vote among everybody.
“They didn’t follow that process, and I think we have every right to object to it,” he explained. “Frankly, I don’t think that anybody — regardless of how they feel about what the result was — should be satisfied or pleased with the process that was followed.”
Citing the approval of local “namesake” tribes, the NCAA later granted policy exemptions to the Florida State Seminoles, the Utah Utes, the Central Michigan Chippewa and the Mississippi College Choctaws. Most of the 18 schools originally identified as having “hostile and abusive” nicknames have agreed to adopt different nicknames.
In the lawsuit, the state of North Dakota contends that not only did UND have the approval to use the Fighting Sioux nickname and logo from the Spirit Lake Sioux tribe, but also that the appeals process was a “sham.” In addition, the state claims that the NCAA applied the policy in a manner that was “arbitrary, capricious and indicative of bad faith” while failing to provide any evidence that UND’s nickname and logo “creates or leads to a hostile or abusive championship environment.”
After the NCAA Executive Committee turned down UND’s final appeal last April, North Dakota’s State Board of Higher Education gave the university approval to sue the NCAA. Stenehjem is in charge of the lawsuit, which is being funded through donations from alumni and others.
“We do have all the assurance we need that as the bills come due, they’ll be paid,” said UND president Charles Kupchella. “It won’t involve any state money.”
The university has also received legal assistance from inside and outside the state, according to UND officials.
Explaining why the lawsuit was filed in state rather than federal court, Stenehjem said, “We had every reason to expect that North Dakota contract law would apply. I think that we have a likelihood of a quicker resolution and determination through the appellate process here in North Dakota.”
Kupchella said that UND’s 100,000 alumni have been “overwhelmingly supportive” of taking the NCAA to court. He also said that UND continues to have discussions about the nickname issue with tribes in North Dakota and South Dakota.
Phone calls and emails to the NCAA by USCHO seeking comment were not returned. However, NCAA spokesman Bob Williams told the Associated Press, “We are planning on aggresively defending our right and our responsibility, quite frankly, to conduct our own NCAA championships in an environment free of racial sterotyping.”
UND’s use of the Fighting Sioux nickname has been controversial for more than 30 years. Sioux tribes in the Dakotas have passed resolutions calling on the university to change the name. Numerous organizations and programs on the UND campus have passed similar resolutions.
(A copy of the State of North Dakota’s Complaint is found on the North Dakota Attorney General’s website at this link: http://www.ag.nd.gov/NewsReleases/Complaint-State-Court.pdf –Ed.)
USCHO staff writers contributed to this report.