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UND and the Big Sky: Who said what, when?

GRAND FORKS -- Rep. Al Carlson, R-Fargo, used North Dakota open records law last week to obtain emails between UND President Robert Kelley, the Big Sky Conference and the NCAA since Jan. 1, apparently seeking to learn whether Kelley was working behind the scenes to counter Carlson's efforts to save the Fighting Sioux nickname.

The Herald also obtained the emails, one of which indicates that Kelley knew about a letter coming from the Big Sky warning that the nickname issue could "destroy" Division I athletics at UND.

Through a spokesman, Kelley denied again Tuesday that he sought the Big Sky statement.

Carlson, the House majority leader and author of a new state law requiring UND to continue using the Fighting Sioux name and logo in defiance of NCAA policy and scheduled sanctions, has raised questions about Kelley's role in the controversy.

Objecting last week to Kelley's calling for repeal of the nickname law -- while Carlson was trying to arrange a meeting with NCAA officials to press the state's case for retaining it -- the legislative leader said "the well has been poisoned many times by people at the university, setting us up for failure."

He also suggested last week that Kelley or others at UND encouraged Big Sky leaders to issue their warning about the potentially dire consequences of allowing the conflict with the NCAA to continue.

Carlson, visiting Medora, N.D., with his wife, said Tuesday he has received the emails "but I haven't had a chance to look at them yet. I'll do that when I get home.

"I just want to see what the communications were between those folks," he said. "There might be nothing there. But I'm still convinced a lot of this was set up for failure, and I'm not in favor of that."

Kelley: 'Thanks for getting this to us'

In an email sent on June 8 to an assistant to Big Sky Conference Commissioner Doug Fullerton, Kelley acknowledged Fullerton's letter, received the day before, detailing conference members' "concerns" about the ongoing controversy over the Fighting Sioux nickname and logo.

"Thanks to both you (assistant Janet Carpenter) and Doug for getting this to us so efficiently," Kelley wrote.

The letter, which Fullerton wrote on behalf of the presidents of Big Sky member schools, warned Kelley that the nickname issue "has the possibility of destroying Division I athletics at the University of North Dakota" and jeopardizing UND's pending membership in the conference.

Kelley had attended a meeting of the Big Sky presidents in Utah, "at which he gave a report on what the situation was with the NCAA and where things were with the nickname," UND spokesman Peter Johnson said Tuesday after conferring with the president.

"The presidents discussed what to do in response to his verbal report to the group," Johnson said. "They talked at that time about sending a letter.

"He said, 'I certainly knew they were talking about it, so I knew it was coming.' But it was not something the president asked for."

Kelley had responded similarly during the Legislative session when it was suggested that he had sought such an intervention by the Summit League, another conference UND was considering joining.

Another of the emails was sent on April 4 by UND Provost Paul LeBel to Mark Emmert, president of the NCAA, and NCAA Vice President Bernard Franklin, attaching a copy of a resolution adopted by the Great Plains Tribal Chairman's Association.

"President Kelley suggested that you need to see the attached resolution," LeBel wrote to Emmert and Franklin.

The resolution, adopted on an 11-0 vote on March 23 in Rapid City, S.D., expressed support for the NCAA policy "to eliminate use of American Indian nicknames, logos and mascots," which it called "dehumanizing and disrespectful to American Indians and ... a racist statement regardless if any state government may pass it as a state law."

The resolution was signed by Tex Hall, chairman of the Three Affiliated Tribes of North Dakota and current leader of the Great Plains association, most of whose members are leaders of Sioux tribes. It had been forwarded to the president's office by Sharon Carson, a UND professor of English, who called it "a significant development."

Johnson, the UND spokesman, said that Kelley decided to forward it to the NCAA "because it was going to be made public" and the NCAA leaders "were going to see it anyway."

Another email indicates that Emmert asked on June 16 for a telephone conversation with Kelley later that day, but the document doesn't indicate what the subject was. Johnson said Kelley and Emmert did talk by phone that day, and the subject was logistics -- who, when and where -- of the proposed North Dakota-NCAA meeting in late July.

Issue 'resolved' before Big Sky application

The correspondence released to Carlson also included a brief email sent Jan. 24 by Athletic Director Brian Faison to Fullerton, providing the Big Sky commissioner "a quick heads up" that Faison would testify that week at a House Education Committee hearing on the nickname.

"It is my intention to make only the following reference to the Big Sky Conference," Faison wrote: "The issue of the nickname and logo had been resolved prior to our conversations with the Big Sky Conference and therefore was never an issue."

He provided Fullerton with an email address and his cell phone number in case "you have anything to share with me" prior to the House hearing, but there was no indication that Fullerton followed up.

After the House and Senate passed the nickname bill and Gov. Jack Dalrymple signed it into law, state and university leaders looked to a face-to-face meeting with the NCAA for a way out of the impasse. On March 21, Patricia Bohnet, executive assistant to Kelley, sent an email to an assistant to the NCAA's Franklin, conveying Kelley's request "that a meeting be scheduled within the next couple of weeks with Dr. Franklin and whomever else he wishes from the NCAA" and a North Dakota delegation that could include the governor, legislative leaders, other state officials, Kelley and Faison.

That was to be the meeting at which Carlson and other nickname defenders explained why they and many North Dakotans -- including many Native Americans -- feel so deeply about keeping the Sioux name. They hoped to persuade the NCAA to modify its position.

A week later, the emails show, Faison wrote to let Fullerton know of that impending North Dakota-NCAA conference, and on April 8 Kelley and Franklin spoke about it by telephone.

On April 13, Kelley's assistant acknowledged receipt of an email from Franklin, but Franklin's correspondence was not attached. Two days later, Kelley wrote to Franklin, noting that the nickname law would take effect on Aug. 1. That email, and Franklin's response, were made public shortly afterward.

"I need to request clarification of the NCAA's position regarding the relationship between the University of North Dakota and the NCAA (with specific reference to the 2007 settlement agreement)," Kelley told the NCAA vice president. "In addition, I wish to inquire whether the NCAA is willing to revisit, in any aspect, the terms of the agreement."

Franklin responded on April 19, reiterating the NCAA policy against use of American Indian names and images, the 2007 legal settlement with UND and UND's failure to "obtain necessary support from the identified Sioux tribes," as required under the settlement.

Thus, given the new state law and the consequent halt in UND's transition away from the nickname, "North Dakota will be subject to the provisions of the policy," Franklin wrote. "Unfortunately, HB 1263 cannot change the NCAA policy nor alter the contracted terms of the Agreement."

State leaders continue working to arrange a meeting in Indianapolis with NCAA officials, despite another declaration earlier this month that the athletics association "has no intention of changing its position" and that UND continues to face sanctions after Aug. 15.

The NCAA has provided two dates in late July when its leaders could be available to meet with a North Dakota delegation, and Grant Shaft of the State Board of Higher Education is checking those dates with Carlson, the governor and others.

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