BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — The University of North Dakota resumed using its contentious Fighting Sioux nickname Wednesday even though it triggered NCAA sanctions, leaving some fans weary of the seven-year fight over a moniker that critics believe is demeaning.
A law requiring the school to use its longtime nickname and logo, which shows the profile of an American Indian warrior, was repealed eight months after it took effect last year in a bid to help the university avoid NCAA sanctions. But ardent nickname supporters filed petitions with more than 17,000 signatures late Tuesday, demanding that the issue be put to a statewide vote.
As part of that process, the law — which the university, the state Board of Higher Education and local lawmakers oppose — temporarily goes back into effect. An NCAA spokesman said Wednesday that means the school won’t host championship events, and its athletes will be barred from wearing uniforms with the nickname or logo in post-season play.
“As soon as that petition was filed last night, the law reverts,” University President Robert Kelley told The Associated Press on Wednesday. “I don’t want to violate the law.”
Still, the decision frustrated fans and alumni who have watched the fight drag on since 2005, when the NCAA prodded 19 schools to get rid of American Indian nicknames, logos and mascots that it considered “hostile and abusive” to Indians. The University of North Dakota is the only school left where the issue is in serious dispute.
“It’s getting pretty tiresome, even for a pretty gung-ho nickname supporter,” said 36-year-old alumnus Shawn Carlson, who lives in Fargo, about 80 miles south of the school’s campus in Grand Forks, near the Minnesota border.
Former Fighting Sioux football player Ross Almlie, 39, agreed: “I’d have just as much pride for the university with or without the nickname and logo. Put me in the camp that believes we have bigger fish to fry.”
Since the repeal, the school has moved to retire the nickname and logo, dropping references to them from websites and changing Internet addresses that referred to the Fighting Sioux. The Indian profile was replaced by a new logo showing the interlocked letters N and D.
However, nickname supporters revived the issue anew by filing referendum petitions that they said had more than 17,000 signatures. They need a minimum of 13,452 signatures from eligible North Dakota voters to qualify for the June ballot.
Secretary of State Al Jaeger has about a month to scrutinize the petitions and decide whether they meet legal standards. He then will decide whether the referendum should go on the June ballot.
Kelley said the university’s men’s and women’s hockey teams and the women’s basketball team have a chance for post-season play in the coming months, and he wasn’t yet sure how the teams would be affected.
“But clearly, by being mandated by state law to be Fighting Sioux, we are right back to where we were before the repeal,” the president said.
The university has been accepted into the Big Sky Conference as part of its move to NCAA Division I athletics.
Doug Fullerton, the conference’s commissioner, said the school could become a weaker conference member if uses its Fighting Sioux nickname and logo because it would be barred from hosting playoff games. The sanctions also could result in recruiting problems.
“We’re not making a value judgment about the nickname,” Fullerton said. “We think we’re one of the strongest conferences in the (Football Championship Subdivision), and we expect our members to play right at the top. If they can’t play post-season home games, that doesn’t help.”
The state Board of Higher Education will likely meet with North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem on Monday to discuss whether to go to court to block reinstatement of the law, board President Grant Shaft said Wednesday.
When the fight began seven years ago, the NCAA told the University of North Dakota and the other schools with American Indian nicknames or logos that to avoid sanctions, they needed to change the names or obtain permission from local tribes. Most changed their nicknames, though some — including the Florida State Seminoles and the Central Michigan Chippewas — got tribal permission to keep them.
North Dakota challenged the NCAA edict in court. In a settlement, the school agreed to begin retiring its nickname if it could not obtain consent to continue its use from North Dakota’s Standing Rock and Spirit Lake Sioux tribes by Nov. 30, 2010.
Spirit Lake tribal members endorsed the name. But the Standing Rock Sioux’s tribal council, which opposed the nickname, has declined to support it or to allow its tribal members to vote.
Current supporters of the nickname and petition drive include members of both the Spirit Lake and Standing Rock Sioux tribes.
The law forcing the school to use the name and logo was approved in March, pushed by some prominent university alumni and Republican House Majority Leader Al Carlson. Carlson said he resented the NCAA’s bullying and what he regarded as the Board of Higher Education’s clumsy handling of the matter.
Carlson hoped the law would make the NCAA reconsider its opposition to the nickname and logo, but NCAA officials remained adamant during a summer meeting with Carlson, Gov. Jack Dalrymple and other officials.
The law was repealed during a special legislative session last November, with many former supporters switching sides and saying it had not accomplished its purpose of influencing the NCAA.
Reed Soderstrom, chairman of the referendum campaign, hailed the university’s decision Wednesday and discouraged members of the higher education board from going back to court.
“They would seem to be following a method of trying to disenfranchise the voters, and I don’t think they have the power to do that,” he said.