North Dakota, NCAA Reach Out-Of-Court Settlement In Nickname Dispute

The NCAA and the state of North Dakota have agreed to an out-of-court settlement over the use of the University of North Dakota’s Fighting Sioux nickname and logo.

The agreement gives UND three years to obtain permission to use the nickname from two Sioux tribal governments within the state on the Standing Rock and Spirit Lake reservations. After both sides sign the settlement as expected, the lawsuit will be dismissed with prejudice, according to North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem.

North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem (right) outlines the details of a settlement with the NCAA during a meeting with the State Board of Higher Education (photo: Patrick C. Miller).

North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem (right) outlines the details of a settlement with the NCAA during a meeting with the State Board of Higher Education (photo: Patrick C. Miller).

“We have today before us a dynamic in terms of a change in public policy that’s being brought forward,” said William Goetz, North Dakota University System chancellor. “This is the recognition of the tribes and how they will be given an opportunity to weigh in on this issue, as should be the case.”

If the university fails to gain approval from the namesake tribes, it must either adopt a new nickname or be subject to an NCAA policy that prevents schools with American Indian nicknames, imagery and mascots from displaying them at the association’s championship events and prohibits the schools from hosting such events.

Meeting in Grand Forks, the North Dakota State Board of Higher Education unanimously approved a 12-page settlement agreement after meeting behind closed doors in executive session with Stenehjem, who represented the state in court. During a public meeting, the attorney general outlined the agreement before it was voted on with little discussion.

In comments following the meeting, Stenehjem said, “If we hadn’t reached this settlement, we faced the very realistic prospect that if we would win the lawsuit, the NCAA would amend its bylaws, in which case the university would then have to decide whether to comply with the bylaws.”

Even if the state won the lawsuit and the NCAA didn’t change its bylaws, he believed the issue would be far from settled.

“We’re back to the same vitriolic situation that we were in and have been in for the last several years,” Stenehjem noted. “I think it’s important that we at least go to the tribal governments and ask them how we can perhaps use the nickname and the logo in a respectful way that’s beneficial to everybody.”

Board president John Paulsen said, “This is not a perfect solution, but given the way Attorney General Stenehjem outlined the facts and the realities of what might happen in the future, this settlement is clearly the best we could hope for.”

As part of the agreement, the NCAA must make a public announcement saying that it recognizes UND’s “many programs and outreach activities to the Native American community and surrounding areas” and that the university is “a national leader in offering educational programs to Native Americans.”

The statement also says that while the NCAA believes “as a general proposition that the use of Native American names and imagery can create a hostile or abusive environment in collegiate athletics,” it does not “make any other finding about the environment on UND’s campus.”

Paulsen views this language as the single most important aspect of the settlement.

“The University of North Dakota deserves that acknowledgement by the NCAA, and it cheers me immensely that all these programs the university has had in place for so many years are being recognized,” he said. “Any suggestion that this institution has ever, as a matter of policy, been hostile or abusive is simply wrong and it needed to be corrected. This settlement makes that correction.”

An NCAA news release says that by settling the case, the association “is not reversing its policy or its commitment to eliminate Native American nicknames and imagery from championship events. The settlement is consistent with the NCAA’s firm belief that Native American nicknames and imagery have no place in intercollegiate athletics.”

Bernard Franklin, NCAA Senior Vice-President for Governance, Membership, Education and Research Services, said, “One fundamental purpose of the policy was and is to listen to the Native American community and the NCAA sought input from them during the settlement negotiations. The settlement confirms that the Sioux people — and no one else — should decide whether and how their name should be used.”

In August 2005, the NCAA Executive Committee implemented a policy against UND and 18 other member schools deemed to use “hostile and abusive” American Indian nicknames, imagery and/or mascots. (UND has no mascot.) Five schools were exempted from policy after receiving approval from local namesake tribes. They are the Florida State Seminoles, the Central Michigan Chippewas, the Utah Utes, the Catawba Indians and the Mississippi College Choctaws.

The Bradley University Braves were placed on a five-year watch list. Other schools elected to comply with the NCAA policy.

After exhausting the appeals process, the state of North Dakota filed a lawsuit against the NCAA in October 2006 on behalf of UND and the state’s board of higher education. The suit alleged that the association had breached its contract with UND by failing to follow its own guidelines, bylaws and constitution; violated statutes requiring good faith and fair dealing; and engaged in unlawful restraint of trade by using its monopoly position in college athletics.

About a month after the suit was filed, Northeast Central District Court Judge Lawrence Jahnke granted a preliminary injunction that prevented the NCAA from enforcing the policy against UND. The case had been scheduled for a jury trial in Grand Forks beginning next month.

Jahnke repeatedly urged the two parties to settle the dispute out of court, at one point noting that combined attorney costs for both sides had reached $2 million. North Dakota’s case was funded entirely with private donations.

As details about the settlement began to leak out through the news media Thursday night, online comments from Sioux sports fans ranged from angry to philosophical to being resigned at losing the Fighting Sioux nickname.

Some advocated the end of all UND programs and opportunities for American Indian students if the two Sioux tribes didn’t grant approval. However, UND spokesperson Peter Johnson said that wouldn’t happen.

“Whatever the resolution is after three years, there are still going to be lots of very good American Indian programs at UND. There’s still going to be an emphasis on serving American Indian students,” he said.

Johnson said the discussions about the future of the nickname and logo with the two Sioux tribes in the state could serve to further strengthen UND’s American Indian programs.

“That’s part of the good that will come out of these conversations,” he said. “It won’t just be about the nickname and the logo. It will be about how we can continue to work together in all kinds of areas.”

Stenehjem said he believes those conversations should occur at the highest levels of state and tribal governments.

“A dialogue is something that needs to happen with top officials,” he explained. “I don’t anticipate a one-way discussion. There are people of good conscience on both sides of the issue.”