Wednesday, June 13, 2012

North Dakota Ready to Move On From Fighting Sioux Nickname

When North Dakota's men's hockey team was preparing for a February visit to Duluth, the team was without a nickname. The "Fighting Sioux" moniker was dropped as of Jan. 1, and the school was planning to go sans nickname for a couple years.

Then a group of petitioners in the state decided to intervene. A successful drive led to enough signatures to trigger a statewide referendum on the nickname. Yes, a statewide vote on the status of a school's nickname.

The school and its alumni association -- which had fought the NCAA "hostile and abusive" bit for years -- suddenly were on the other side of the fence. Led by an emotional men's hockey coach Dave Hakstol, one of the champions of the fight, the school began an initiative to convince voters to allow it to drop the name.

The work was a success.

Voters Tuesday overwhelmingly decided to allow the school to drop the nickname. The guy who started the petition drive isn't ready to let a 2-1 majority stand in the way of what he thinks is right.

“Obviously, we’re disappointed,” said Sean Johnson, Bismarck, spokesman for the group that sought Tuesday’s statewide referendum on the nickname.

He blamed “a lot of false fears generated by the foundation,” a reference to the UND Alumni Association and Foundation, which took the lead in encouraging a vote to allow UND to retire the nickname. Keeping it, the alumni groups and others said, could severely damage UND because of NCAA sanctions.

The alumni groups spent about $250,000 on the campaign, mostly on TV advertising. “When your opposition out-spends you 25-1, they’d better fire their ad company if they don’t win,” Johnson said.

He said nickname supporters will continue to circulate petitions for another vote, an initiated measure that would secure the nickname in the state Constitution. If enough signatures are filed by August, that vote could occur in November, but Johnson said the group may wait to file until December for a vote on the constitutional amendment in 2014.


Meanwhile, the Grand Forks Herald story linked above indicates that there are some members of the Standing Rock Sioux who want the tribal council to vote on the nickname. A vote in the affirmative by this tribe could have prevented any of this from happening in the first place, but the tribe has yet to vote.

No matter what, it's time to move on. It's been a controversial and very divisive issue in North Dakota, as well as among alumni of the school.

The nickname has already cost North Dakota several competitive opportunities, including a track meet at Iowa that the school had been invited to before the petition drive forced it to reinstate the Sioux nickname. The alumni association's campaign centered around opportunities like this that were going to disappear if the nickname wasn't discontinued. Those opportunities largely involved sports that aren't hockey, as the UND hockey teams don't tend to have any scheduling or conference issues.

Longtime readers and listeners will know where I have stood on this issue. But when the nickname was restored in February, it was clear that more harm than good would come from its continued use. The fact that people like Johnson don't seem to understand that these are real impacts on real student athletes -- even if they don't directly involve hockey -- make me think that this petition drive was the work of either an attention-grabbing or exceptionally misguided individual.

The day that this nickname started having a profoundly negative impact on the student athlete experience at North Dakota was the day that this fight had gone on long enough.

That day has come and gone.

UPDATE: Via Jen Conway (@NHLhistorygirl on Twitter), here's a statement from UND President Robert Kelley:

We are appreciative that voters took the time to listen and to understand the issues and the importance of allowing the University to move forward.  We also understand how deeply this has affected all of us.

Tuesday's vote allows us to focus our attention on our students as we continue to build exceptional programs in all areas of the University.  We appreciate the support that has been expressed for the University of North Dakota over the past several weeks, and especially for UND Athletics.  It is support that will continue to be important as we build a great future for the University and for UND Athletics.

We will continue to work with the State Board of Higher Education, the North Dakota University System, and the leadership in athletics as we move forward.

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