Fighting Sioux fans, I have some advice for you. Actually, wait – can I call you Fighting Sioux fans? Not sure where the lawsuits are at today.
Anyway, for those unaware, the University of North Dakota has once again been thrust into the spotlight because of its Fighting Sioux nickname. The NCAA sent a letter to the school stating that the potential of forfeiting post-season games is now a real possibility if the team logo or nickname is displayed on its uniforms. The women’s team will already play any national post-season games on the road, even if they earn a high seed – the NCAA’s policy against what it deems to be an offensive nickname prevents the school from hosting playoff events (conference games are different).
If you’re not familiar with the controversy, here’s a quick and dirty primer: When the NCAA cracked down on nicknames a few years ago, schools could earn an exemption if the peoples of the local tribes involved were OK with it. That’s why the Florida State Seminoles retain their famous moniker, while Miami, Ohio ditched ‘Redskins’ in favor of ‘RedHawks.’
North Dakota was in a bit of a spot because there are two separate Sioux tribes in the state. The Spirit Lake Sioux gave consent to use the name, while the Standing Rock Sioux did not. The school had three years to convince the tribe otherwise, but could not. Therefore, the NCAA said the name had to go. A lot of legislation, bad feelings and paperwork ensued and the issue still isn’t resolved. North Dakota legislators even passed a pro-Fighting Sioux law stating the team had to wear the logo and name on its uniforms, essentially daring the NCAA to come after them. Now it’s happening.
Of course it’s the players who lose out here. The men’s team has “neutral-themed” jerseys on order in case the squad makes it to the Frozen Four – and with 15 NHL draft picks on the roster, including first-rounders Brock Nelson and Derek Forbort, that’s not a stretch – but state law would prevent them from wearing the alternative sweaters. What, exactly, is the university’s sports department supposed to do?
I understand how passionate the people of North Dakota are about the Fighting Sioux name and “Indian Head” logo, but optics are not on their side. When Ralph Engelstad dedicated $100 million to build the arena that bears his name, he made sure there were so many logos included inside that stripping them off would be nearly impossible. He also dictated that North Dakota hockey had to retain the Fighting Sioux name and look in order to play there. It’s pretty obvious he knew what was going to happen, just as the state’s legislators only passed the pro-Sioux law in order to stick it to the NCAA.
But the fun and games ends now because North Dakota needs the NCAA more than the other way around. A Frozen Four without UND would be a shame, given that recent alumni include Jonathan Toews, Zach Parise and T.J. Oshie. But Michigan, Boston College and Minnesota bring just as much profile to the table.
On the other hand, what high-profile recruit is going to come to a school that literally has no shot at a national title? Here’s a perfect case study for you: Right now, top 2013 draft prospect Seth Jones is deciding where he’ll play next season. The U.S. national team development program defenseman can head to the Western League’s Everett Silvertips, or a college program. One school high on his list is North Dakota. Jones would be the biggest UND recruit since Toews – in fact, one NHL exec told me it was unfair for the 2011 draft-eligible blueliners on the NTDP when Jones was on the ice, because all the scouts were watching the Texas native. That was last year, when he was supposed to be with the under-17 team, not the under-18s.
So ask yourself, Fighting Sioux supporters: What’s the name and logo worth if there’s no one around worthy enough to wear it?
Ryan Kennedy, the co-author of Young Guns II, is THN’s associate senior writer and a regular contributor to THN.com. His column appears Wednesdays and The Hot List appears Tuesdays. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/THNRyanKennedy.