N. Dakota could lose home playoff edge

University of North Dakota teams risk losing the right to play postseason games at home if their athletes, cheerleaders or band wear or display the school’s Fighting Sioux nickname and American Indian head logo, an NCAA official said Wednesday.

Bernard Franklin, an NCAA executive vice president, wrote in a letter to university provost Paul LeBel that the university "must forfeit competition" on its campus if "it has not adhered to this requirement" in any postseason games that UND teams have been invited to play in.

"We ask that the university take measures to minimize or eliminate the presence of the imagery or nickname brought to an NCAA championship venue," Franklin wrote in the letter.

The NCAA has long said the nickname and logo are hostile to American Indians and that the Grand Forks school’s teams may not wear uniforms that bear the nickname or logo during postseason contests. But the Franklin letter’s mention of forfeiting postseason home games is a new development.

The university’s women’s hockey team, which is ranked fifth in the nation, might be the first affected by the sanctions. The team could be seeded high enough to receive a first-round home series in the NCAA’s postseason tournament. But the nickname penalty would bar the team from doing so and force North Dakota to give up home ice.

"You ask them to . . . work hard, and (they’ve) had a great season and then be told, ‘Hey, regardless of what you do, you’re going on the road.’ That kind of stinks," coach Brian Idalski said at a news conference in Grand Forks.

Brian Faison, the university’s athletic director, said the letter should help convince skeptics of the reality of NCAA sanctions.

"We knew going in that this was a possibility, but it’s in black and white now," Faison said. "It’s very clear what will happen."

The nickname and logo, and the NCAA’s attitudes toward them, have been the focus of an intense political and legal debate in North Dakota.

In March 2011, the North Dakota Legislature approved a law requiring the university to use the logo and the Fighting Sioux nickname, which it has had for decades, despite the threat of NCAA sanctions.

When the NCAA declined to exempt UND from its policy discouraging schools’ use of American Indian nicknames and logos that it considers offensive, the Legislature repealed the pro-nickname law last November. Nickname backers responded by filing referendum petitions that demand a June statewide vote on whether UND should be forced to keep the nickname and logo.

The Board of Higher Education, which supports dropping the nickname and logo, responded by filing a lawsuit against Secretary of State Al Jaeger in a bid to keep the measure off the ballot. The North Dakota Supreme Court is considering a request to hear the case without first assigning it to a lower court for review.

Franklin’s letter says if UND’s use of the nickname and logo forces the school to give up postseason home games, the NCAA might demand that the university reimburse the organizing body for its travel and meal costs in connection with the championship.

"It is the spirit of the NCAA’s championship policy that the competing student-athletes (both North Dakota and its opponents) not be distracted or disrupted during the championship by debates about when and where your institution’s Native American imagery or nickname may be displayed or worn," Franklin wrote in the letter.