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With a sigh, ND Senate repeals nickname law


BISMARCK, N.D. -- With barely an echo of the passion and debate that marked the North Dakota Legislature's adoption earlier this year of a mandate that UND keep its Fighting Sioux nickname and logo, the Senate voted 39-7 Tuesday for a bill that would repeal the mandate.

The repeal bill, which carries an amendment stipulating that UND is not to adopt a new nickname or associated logo until Jan. 1, 2015, goes now to the House, where it is likely to come up for a floor vote on Wednesday.

The House and Senate education committees, meeting jointly earlier Tuesday, each had voted unanimously to recommend adoption of the amended repeal bill.

Rep. Corey Mock, D-Grand Forks, a member of the House Education Committee, sat through the brief Senate debate and vote. He said he expects a similarly comfortable margin when the bill reaches the House floor.

The bill was introduced Monday through the Senate Delayed Bills Committee by Sen. Lonnie Laffen, R-Grand Forks, but Sen. Donald Schaible, R-Mott, carried it on the Senate floor and set a wistful tone for the brief debate to come.

The issue, he said, "has created much emotion for the people of North Dakota and for the students, staff and alumni of UND."

The education committees, which had heard many hours of impassioned testimony from both sides when the bill requiring UND to keep the name made its surprise appearance during the 2011 regular session, also was the subject of "good testimony, for and against," on Monday, Schaible said.

'Time to move on'

The original bill embracing the Fighting Sioux name was passed "with every intention of doing what's right for North Dakota," he said, but "now it's time to do what's best for the University of North Dakota." Committee members were persuaded, he said, that continuing to require UND to use the nickname "could possibly destroy the athletic program" at the university.

Sen. David O'Connell, D-Lansford, said he "never backed down from a bully in my life," but he also had concluded that "it's time to move on" and allow UND to retire the name.

"We did our best" in trying to save the name, he said, but evidence growing since the Legislature's action last spring provided "a reality check," and North Dakota found it was "playing on the NCAA's home court, and using their ball."

Sen. Dick Dever, R-Bismarck, told his colleagues that he had lain awake the night before, thinking about the Fighting Sioux nickname issue.

It's frustrating, he said, after listening to many Sioux Indians -- North Dakotans -- say they look at the nickname with pride "and don't think it's hostile and abusive."

"We need to let this go," Dever said, "but we need to keep that heritage alive, and I know they will."

'Still so much passion'

Before the amendment that passed the Senate Tuesday, there was another amendment that would have prevented UND from adopting a new nickname until all litigation on the subject is settled.

The Spirit Lake Sioux Tribe is suing the NCAA for opposing the nickname, but the earliest a court is likely to take up the case is 2013.

"Some people say, 'Just repeal and get over with it," said Rep. Rep. RaeAnn Kelsch, R-Mandan, and chairwoman of the House Education Committee. "But there is still so much passion about this."

It was she who offered the amendment.

She said after listening to more than two hours of testimony Monday from "the people who have lived this issue, just to repeal the law, doesn't satisfy the needs and wants."

Other committee members said waiting until all litigation is settled could stretch on for many years. Some raised questions about how such an open-ended moratorium might sit with leaders of the Big Sky Conference, which UND hopes to join next year. Conference leaders have indicated the ongoing nickname tussle is a problem for them.

Asked whether UND would keep the nickname if the lawsuit were to prevail, State Board of Higher Education President Grant Shaft said UND would still have to consider implications for conference affiliation and scheduling opponents.

The universities of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa all have adopted their own policies separate from the NCAA's regarding competition with schools with nicknames, mascots or logos based on American Indian names and imagery.

Preserving athletics

On the Senate floor Tuesday evening, only one member of the Grand Forks delegation spoke: Sen. Mac Schneider, a Democrat who represents the district that includes UND -- where, he again reminded the Senate, he proudly played Fighting Sioux football.

"I fully appreciate the frustration North Dakotans feel towards the NCAA's policy on this issue and the manner in which it has been applied to UND," he said. "Is the NCAA being fair? Is it even making sense? Those questions can be answered with a resounding 'no.' But that is not the debate today.

"The issue before us is, again, a narrow one. Given the reality we face, what is in the best interest of the University of North Dakota, and in particular, its student athletes?"

People should not downplay the seriousness of threatened sanctions from the NCAA, Schneider said.

"The commissioner of the Big Sky Conference, which UND is scheduled to join next year, has made painfully clear -- in writing -- that a failure to resolve this issue leaves 'the Big Sky Conference and any other NCAA Division I conference with very little reason to continue to offer membership to UND.'

"Without a viable conference, our teams will be unable to put together a viable schedule. Without the ability to play against top competition, UND will fail to recruit top talent in terms of coaches and athletes alike. Life as an upper-Midwest independent under NCAA sanctions is absolutely not a realistic option for UND.

"Very simply, we can have successful Division I athletic programs at UND, or we can have the nickname law on the books. We cannot have both."