North Dakota officials fight NCAA over UND mascot

Protest over UND's Fighting Sioux logo
Protestors in Grand Forks, N.D. show their displeasure over the University of North Dakota's use of the Fighting Sioux nickname and logo.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

Outside the courthouse a few people held signs protesting the fighting Sioux nickname. Inside the courtroom attorneys for both sides spent several hours arguing the fine points of contract law, antitrust and interstate commerce.

North Dakota attorneys argue the NCAA violated its own rules when an executive committee imposed sanctions on UND because of the Fighting Sioux nickname. They contend the university will suffer irreparable harm if it is not allowed to host tournaments or if teams playing in tournaments are forced to cover the fighting Sioux logo.

Fighting Sioux logo
The University of North Dakota's Fighting Sioux nickname and logo have generated controversy for years.
Image courtesy of the University of North Dakota

Attorneys for the NCAA contend the organization has a right to set its own rules and enforce them. They argued the NCAA doesn't hold events in cities where sports gambling is legal, or in cities where the confederate flag flies over public buildings.

NCAA attorney Linda Salfrank argued the requested injunction would undermine the NCAA's ability to draft and administer policies.

"It would harm the NCAA's integrity in maintaining recognized standards in intercollegiate athletics and it would undermine the NCAA's ability to govern itself," Salfrank said.

North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenjehm contends the NCAA violated its own bylaws. He told the court that major decisions like sanctions against a school should be voted on by member schools and not decided by an executive committee

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"That's why we have those legislative processes and policies," said Stenjehm. "Nobody ever intended in our view that this be turned over to a subcommittee of individuals from the NCAA to make major decisions for its membership."

Ralph Englestad Arena
The Ralph Englestad Arena in Grand Forks, N.D. is the home to some of the sports teams from the University of North Dakota. The facility contains many examples of the school's mascot the Fighting Sioux. The logo is behind a legal dispute between state officials and the NCAA.
Photo courtesy of Ralph Englestad Arena

The NCAA says it owns the rights to sports championships and can choose how and where those championships are played.

Fargo attorney Wick Corwin represented the NCAA. He's a UND graduate, but he says his alma mater is wrong to push the issue when there is strong evidence the nickname causes harm to American Indians.

"This is the wrong fight, fought at the wrong time for all the wrong reasons your honor," Corwin said. "Nothing good can come of it your honor. The public interest weighs heavily against the entry of an injunction."

North Dakota attorneys argued this is not about the merits of the nickname, it's about whether the NCAA executive committee has the authority to impose restrictions on UND without a vote of all its member schools.

North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenjehm says regardless of what happens with the court case, there will continue to be arguments about the Fighting Sioux nickname.

"They will go on not in this courtroom, but in the court of public opinion," Stenjehm said. "Ultimately a determination of whether to continue will be made through negotiation perhaps but through the arrival of concensus in the state of North Dakota. That is the proper place for these kind of issues to be determined."

Grand Forks District Court Judge Lawrence Jahnke did not say when he will rule on the request for a temporary injunction. He set a tentative trial date in April.