It’s been several years since the NCAA decided to start punishing schools that use tribal mascots and imagery. For the most part, it has shaken itself out and almost everybody has selected a new mascot. They became the Red Wolves, RedHawks, Warhawks, and Mustangs. The Illini are still the Illini, but without the imagery, and the Tribe are still the Tribe, but without the feather. The lone hold-out remains the University of North Dakota, and they’re about to pay a steep price:

When UND was accepted for Big Sky membership in November, the conference’s other colleges believed the issue was settled and UND would retire the nickname, Fullerton said in a letter to Kelley. Should UND keep the Fighting Sioux nickname and Indian head logo, the school could face boycotts from other colleges and cancellations of athletic events, he said.

“Boycotts by individual schools or leagues will certainly have a negative effect on all of your programs, including hockey,” Fullerton wrote. “Couple these issues with postseason restrictions, and we are concerned that this state law has the possibility of destroying Division I athletics at the University of North Dakota.”.

The “individual schools” joining the boycott include the nearby University of Minnesota, an important rival for their hockey program (UND’s primary sport is hockey, their football program being overshadowed by North Dakota State). Losing their spot in the Big Sky Conference is itself quite a big deal, as the Big Sky is one of the better FCS-level conferences and includes some pretty big western schools. The mascot has already cost them a spot in the Summit League and Missouri Valley Football Conference, which the other three Dakota schools, as well as Nebraska-Omaha, will be playing in soon. Their hockey program will also be sidelined from playoffs.

The school had already announced an intent to change mascots, but they were overruled by the state legislature. Also important, some very big UND donors have threatened to stop donating money to the program if they make the change. This puts the university in a really rough place. The legislature and boosters are counting on the NCAA flinching, or else gambling with their entire athletics program to hold on to the tribal connection. Is it worth being the Sioux if nobody will play you?

A lot of this points back to the poor way that the NCAA handled this. The NCAA doesn’t have the authority to make any schools do anything, but they nonetheless played a pretty heavy hand. They allowed waivers that let Florida State, Utah, and others get through if they had the support of one or more tribes that they were representing. But otherwise, they set a pretty high bar for any school representing a tribe with more than one faction. North Dakota actually has the support of one Sioux tribe, and in my mind that ought to be enough. Making their continued use of the name contingent on tribal approval strikes me as a good compromise.

In addition to avoiding this trainwreck, it could have been a truly beneficial exchange. Things worked out very well with Florida State, where the school started changing its iconography and imagery to that of the actual Seminole tribe. Likewise, had UND been required to retain the goodwill of the Sioux, they could have asked for the same. Or money, for that matter. Or admittance and scholarships. This could have been a win-win. The origins of UND’s selection of the Sioux are actually known. They were chosen because the school wanted something that was good at killing Bison, which is the mascot of their in-state rival, and they researched it and determined that the Sioux were great bison-hunters. Putting UND’s specific situation aside, schools with generic names like Indians could conceivably have even be asked to emphasize the name of their sponsoring tribe, which for a lesser-known tribe that would like a higher profile, would be a positive. Especially if it came out that they were good hunters.

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3 Responses to Sioux You, NCAA

  1. Mike Hunt says:

    One of my greatest hopes is that the NCAA finally steps on too many toes and the BCS schools decide to form their own organization.

    For those who think this is too implausible, remember that both the SEC and the ACC were founded because its schools left the Southern Conference. Now they are both power conferences, while no one gives a shit about the SoCon.

  2. Peter says:

    The NCAA is a disgrace, I’d be overjoyed to see it fail.

  3. trumwill says:

    There’s no percentage in the BCS conferences leaving the NCAA. They get just about all they want from it and mostly evade Justice Department action. Conferences have revenue-sharing, which makes the reshuffling make more sense.

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