BISMARCK, N.D. - The University of North Dakota will resume using its contentious Fighting Sioux nickname despite threats from the NCAA, the school’s president said Wednesday, marking the latest twist in a protracted fight about a name that critics consider offensive.
A state law requiring the university to use its longtime nickname and logo, which shows the profile of an American Indian warrior, was repealed in November. The university has since been trying to retire the moniker, but nickname supporters filed petitions late Tuesday demanding that the issue be put to a statewide vote.
University President Robert Kelley said the school decided to resume using the name and logo to respect the state’s referendum process, which requires the pro-nickname law be in effect while the secretary of state reviews the petition signatures over the next month.
"As soon as that petition was filed last night, the law reverts," Kelley told The Associated Press. "I don’t want to violate the law."
The NCAA has told the university that continued use of the nickname and logo would expose the school to sanctions. The school could not host post-season tournaments, and its athletes could not wear uniforms with the logo or nickname in post-season play.
Emails and phone messages left with the NCAA were not immediately returned Wednesday. The university and leaders in Grand Forks, where the school is located, had opposed the law.
Kelley said the 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 it was unclear how the teams would be affected.
"I don’t know whether this is going to put us back on the (sanctions) list or not," Kelly said. "But clearly, by being mandated by state law to be Fighting Sioux, we are right back to where we were before the repeal."
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.
The dispute began in 2006, 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.
The NCAA said the schools, to avoid sanctions, had to change their nicknames or obtain permission from local tribes. Most changed their names, although the Florida State Seminoles and the Central Michigan Chippewas were among the schools that got tribal permission to keep their nicknames.
North Dakota challenged the NCAA edict in court. In a settlement, the school agreed to begin retiring its nickname if it couldn’t 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.
The law forcing the school to use the name and logo was approved last March, despite opposition from university officials and Grand Forks legislators. Supporters of the proposal included some prominent university alumni.
The law’s chief sponsor, Republican House Majority Leader Al 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 the NCAA was adamant.
The law was repealed during a special legislative session in November, with many former supporters switching sides and saying it had not accomplished its purpose of influencing the NCAA.
Supporters of the nickname, including some members of the Standing Rock Sioux, said they turned in petitions with more than 17,000 signatures late Tuesday in support of the law. The required minimum is 13,452 names.
Reed Soderstrom, chairman of the referendum campaign, hailed the university’s decision Wednesday and discouraged education board members 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.