Baumgarten: Is it just a nickname?

GRAND FORKS -- When I was ready to attend college, I wanted to be a Fighting Sioux. OK, that's not true. Actually, I wanted to be a lawyer, which meant I would either have to go out of state for law school or attend the University of North Dakota...

April Baumgarten
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GRAND FORKS -- When I was ready to attend college, I wanted to be a Fighting Sioux.
OK, that’s not true. Actually, I wanted to be a lawyer, which meant I would either have to go out of state for law school or attend the University of North Dakota.
But I went to what is now known the University of Jamestown because (1) I felt it had the best tools I needed to get to law school, (2) I was offered $20,000 in scholarships, meaning I wouldn’t have to pay an arm and a leg for higher education, and (3) I liked the campus atmosphere and professors.
You know what wasn’t on that list? A unique, inspiring and unforgettable nickname. I’m not going to speak for everyone, but I have a feeling that is the case for most students. When I eventually chose a career in journalism, it was my education and skill, not a nickname, that landed me a job.
It made me wonder this week: Why do people, even those who have no stake in the process, care so much about the UND nickname?
Here’s a better question: Does the nickname even matter, or is it just a symbol?
Let’s stop and think about why everyone was so upset about losing the Fighting Sioux moniker. It had been part of the school for the better half of a century. It’s been the source of pride and honor. Some say it was a gift from North Dakota’s Sioux tribes.
Then the NCAA came in to say the nickname was offensive - essentially telling the school and fans they are a bunch of racists - and threatened sanctions if the nickname wasn’t retired. If someone told me they were going to take away something I had all of my life, I would be upset, too.
Add salt to injury by taking away the option - playing as North Dakota or UND - many voters supported. The best chance of unofficially keeping the Fighting Sioux alive was gone. Their anger is understandable.
But at the end of the day, how much does a nickname or logo contribute to a university’s success? Yes, it serves as a symbol for the college, it can help with marketing and it is a logo fans, students, alumni and others can stand behind. But is it so most important that it persuades donors to give money to a college or that it sparks protests and public outcry?
Let’s be honest with ourselves. A university’s main function is simple: attract students and provide high-quality education, while making enough money to pay teachers, cover expense and improve the college. Those goals entail steps, such as gathering funds to improve the campus, keeping students, offering activities and, yes, having reputable sports teams.
But I find it hard to believe that a student or athlete decides to go to a school because a recruiter said, “Check out our awesome mascot.” I’d imagine any employer who hires a worker because he or she likes the applicant’s college moniker is not going to stay in business. And I know parents don’t want to hear it, but of the 8 million high school athletes in the U.S., less than 6 percent will play college sports, and depending on the sport, 1 to 8.6 percent of college student-athletes will play sports professionally, according to the NCAA.
Sports are an important revenue source and recruiting tool for colleges. But have a backup plan, athletes, especially if you are choosing a school because it has a screeching Blue Hawk as a logo.
And while we are on that subject, Dickinson State University wants to protect its right to using the shortened Hawk name, but they should know former Bismarck Mayor Marlan “Hawk” Haakenson might say he had first dibs. But DSU has bigger problems, and the last thing it needs to worry about is someone cheering the shortened version of one of the most common college nicknames in the country.
My point is, a nickname can be something people stand behind and be proud of, but it’s probably not as important as some claim. A nickname is not going to get a student a job. It’s not going to guarantee a hockey team wins championships. It won’t grow a university’s prestige and facilities.
When donors say they will pull funding because a mascot is changing, they are not thinking about the best interests of the university and its students. It’s downright childish when fans constantly throw tantrums because they couldn’t have their way. After a generation or two, the Fighting Sioux moniker will fade into a memory and most will have moved on in support of the university and its students. For those who refuse to do so, I hope you enjoy living in the past as you pout over your Sioux memorabilia.
A university is meant to provide students with higher education. As a business, a university must make choices to improve its facilities and the programs it offers.
At the end of the day, it’s just a nickname. Now that UND has a new one, let’s get to the real business.
Baumgarten is the news editor at the Grand Forks Herald and former news editor of The Press. Contact her at (701) 780-1248 or . Tweet her @aprilbaumsaway, and go
to her blog at for more columns.

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