Nickname uproar in North Dakota damaging school

  • Article by: RACHEL BLOUNT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 21, 2012 - 12:15 PM

The pained expression on his face betrayed Dave Hakstol's emotions last week, when the North Dakota hockey coach reluctantly raised the white flag on his support for the Fighting Sioux nickname.

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University of North Dakota men's hockey coach Dave Hakstol said the consequences of keeping the nickname are too great for the school's athletic program.

Photo: Bruce Bisping, Star Tribune file

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The pained expression on his face betrayed Dave Hakstol's emotions last week, when the North Dakota hockey coach reluctantly raised the white flag on his support for the Fighting Sioux nickname. Hakstol, fiercely proud of that name during his three years as a player and 12 seasons as a coach in Grand Forks, had concluded the cost of keeping it is simply too high.

He was just the latest UND loyalist to voice that opinion. Football coach Chris Mussman, athletic director Brian Faison, Gov. Jack Dalrymple, the president of the alumni association and several former athletes also have gone on record opposing the endless efforts to cling to the nickname. Still, the pro-Fighting Sioux forces rage on, even as their unwinnable cause wreaks havoc on an institution they claim to care about.

Their refusal to face reality has escalated from the embarrassing to the destructive, endangering the school's ability to succeed in Division I sports and harming its national image. If they truly treasured UND, they would recognize that no symbol -- no matter how beloved -- is worth this kind of blind allegiance.

That is why Hakstol, Faison and others have given up the fight. They understand the NCAA's unwavering rejection of the nickname means it has to go if the athletic department is to remain viable. They also know that retiring it does nothing to diminish UND's seven hockey championships, or the thrill of its football Saturdays, or its trove of Division II trophies. By refusing to sacrifice its future to an icon of its past, they have proven they genuinely have the school's best interests at heart.

For that, they have been labeled cowards and appeasers by a pro-nickname crowd that has become increasingly irrational. An NCAA ban on Native American nicknames and images, enacted in 2005, mandated that UND drop the Fighting Sioux name unless it got permission from local tribes to keep it. The Standing Rock tribe has not acquiesced, so the school has been phasing out the nickname and logo.

Nickname supporters convinced the Legislature to pass a law last March requiring the school to keep the name. They naively thought that would make the NCAA back down. When it didn't, the Legislature repealed the law in November, wasting more of the public's money and the lawmakers' time on a frivolous issue.

Many in the state have grown tired of the impasse, and the university has already spent $750,000 to take the Sioux nickname and logo off of everything from team uniforms to its website. The nickname crusaders have been undeterred. In December, they began a petition drive to put the nickname issue on the ballot for the November election as a constitutional amendment.

That is not a joke. They are so single-minded in their attachment to a sports-team nickname that they want it engraved in the state constitution, as if it were essential to a free society. Another petition has temporarily reinstated the original law to keep the name, adding to the confusion, and North Dakota's attorney general has asked the state Supreme Court to rule on the law's constitutionality.

In addition to being costly and embarrassing, the issue is already causing real harm to the athletic department. Iowa has canceled two women's basketball games and a swim meet, and other schools -- including Minnesota and Wisconsin -- will not play North Dakota if it keeps the nickname.

NCAA sanctions would prohibit the university from hosting tournament games. It has been reported that some recruits have shied away from North Dakota because of the uncertainty, and the school's membership in the Big Sky Conference -- set to begin this summer, and considered essential to its football program -- could be imperiled.

None of that seems to matter to the nickname defenders, who dismiss these very real consequences as a scare tactic. They still think they can bully the NCAA, which is laughable. Membership in that organization is not a right, and it is not a democracy. If UND wants to sponsor Division I sports, it has to play by the NCAA's rules.

Last year, Hakstol supported the law mandating use of the nickname. He has since come to realize the futility of that stance. "It's becoming more of a straight-up decision based on cold, hard facts,'' he said last week. "Simply put, it will possibly diminish our hockey program slowly over time. In my opinion, it would be extremely damaging to all of our other sports on campus in the near future.''

Hakstol recognized the time had come to stop fighting against the best interests of North Dakota athletics. It's time the rest of the state came to its senses and joined him.

Rachel Blount • rblount@startribune.com

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