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NCAA reaffirms: Policy on nicknames unchanged

GRAND FORKS -- University of North Dakota and state leaders will go ahead with plans to meet with the NCAA this summer despite the NCAA's rather forceful restating of its position Friday concerning UND's Fighting Sioux nickname.

The NCAA declared that it has "no intention of changing its position" and sanctions will apply if the name and logo are still in use after Aug. 15. But the association also has indicated to UND that NCAA leaders would receive a North Dakota delegation to discuss the impasse and provided two possible dates for a meeting in Indianapolis in late July.

UND President Robert Kelley, who confirmed that the NCAA had provided his office with the possible meeting dates, said he was "not surprised by the statement, as the NCAA is consistent in their position."

"I think the issue now is to get our legislative and executive leaders to talk with the NCAA and see if there's any final opportunity to turn the NCAA in another direction," Kelley said.

"They're trying to be as helpful as they can," he said, "and they understand the difficulty" of UND's position, caught between a legal settlement requiring that the nickname be dropped and a state law directing that it be retained.

Citing concerns expressed last week by leaders of the Big Sky Conference, which UND hopes to enter next year, the NCAA statement noted that the conference presidents' position "is consistent with the spirit and intent of the settlement agreement the NCAA reached with the university (in 2007) to retire the nickname and logo."

If UND follows the new state law and continues to use the Fighting Sioux nickname and Indian-head logo after Aug. 15, sanctions will be imposed, according to the statement.

Grant Shaft, the newly installed president of the State Board of Higher Education, said the language of the statement "is pretty black and white," but he also said efforts to arrange a face-to-face meeting with the NCAA will continue.

"This really isn't a change in what we've perceived the NCAA position to be all along," Shaft said. "Shortly after the legislation (on keeping the name) was passed, their comment was they didn't think the legislation changed their policy. They now make a more formal statement.

"I still think a meeting will take place between the NCAA officials and the North Dakota contingent because the North Dakota legislative leadership believes very strongly that a face-to-face meeting with the NCAA could change their position.

"However, this statement indicates that possibility is pretty narrow."

North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, who negotiated the 2007 settlement, and Rep. Al Carlson, R-Fargo, who authored the 2011 nickname law, were not immediately available for comment Friday, but a spokesman for Gov. Jack Dalrymple said the governor has talked with Carlson about a prospective NCAA meeting and indicated he would attend.

"He is interested in attending and will make the effort to schedule the meeting around other responsibilities," spokesman Jeff Zent said.

The unsigned NCAA statement, as posted on its website:

"The NCAA's Native American mascot policy remains in effect, and we stand ready to assist the University of North Dakota with its implementation of the policy.

"The Big Sky Conference's position related to the university's Fighting Sioux nickname and logo is consistent with the spirit and intent of the settlement agreement the NCAA reached with the university to retire the nickname and logo.

"We have made clear to both the conference and the university that the NCAA has no intention of changing its position.

"If the University of North Dakota continues to use the nickname and logo past the August 15 deadline due to state law, it will be subject to the parameters of the policy. This means the university could not host any championships or use the nickname and logo at any championship events."

A timing concern

UND Athletic Director Brian Faison also said the statement "is consistent with the NCAA position throughout the process, so it's not a surprise."

But he said it underscores that "timing continues to be a concern in terms of getting this situation addressed," perhaps through legislative action. The Legislature, which could revisit the nickname law adopted earlier this year, isn't expected to convene again until November, when it is scheduled to hold a brief redistricting session.

Members of the Big Sky Conference will meet again in October and are expected to take up UND's situation again at that time.

"You'd like to be in position of having a process in play so we could walk through it with the Big Sky presidents' council," Faison said. "But if the earlier this can be addressed (by the Legislature) is November, then so be it."

To fully reassure Big Sky leaders, "there would have to be a clear public statement and action by the Legislature," Faison said.

Jon Backes, the outgoing president of the state board, also expressed concern about timing.

The NCAA statement "definitely confirms what they have said all along, which is they aren't really interested in revisiting the overall issue," he said.

Backes said there "has been some talk of addressing this at a special session of the Legislature, which is in November, but the Big Sky is taking it up again in October" at the next scheduled conference meeting.

"If the Legislature and the governor don't do something before that time, I'm afraid we are at risk of the Big Sky taking action that would be, in my opinion, an unmitigated disaster for UND."

He agreed that efforts to arrange a face-to-face meeting should continue, though he doubts such a conversation would budge the NCAA from its position.

"Any time you have a continuing relationship between two organizations, such as UND and the NCAA, open and fair discussion is a positive and not a negative," Backes said. "It certainly doesn't hurt to have state leadership, including the legislative leaders and the governor, have that kind of discussion with the NCAA. That will help in understanding how the relationship works going further.

"But will it change minds? This statement pretty much confirms my belief that it's not likely to change. In fact, I think it is quite improbable."

Haga is a reporter at the Grand Forks Herald, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.