Are The University Of North Dakota’s Big Sky Conference Concerns Bogus?
The University of North Dakota has been a full (core) member of the Big Sky Conference since October 29, 2010 according to documents received from UND via an open records request. This would seemingly contradict concerns precipitated by the university and State Board of Higher Education that UND will not be able to enter the conference if they retain the Fighting Sioux name and logo, as the documentation shows UND is already a conference member.
These concerns were a primary justification provided by UND and the State Board of Higher Ed to the North Dakota Legislature in testimony to repeal a state law protecting the Fighting Sioux name and logo from retirement in November 2011. Despite a three year moratorium intended to allow a lawsuit filed by the Spirit Lake Nation against the NCAA to take its course over the NCAA Native American imagery, name, and mascot policy; UND has vigorously pursued efforts to “substantially retire” the Fighting Sioux name and logo by the end of 2011.
A contract (Exhibit 1) was signed by UND President Robert O. Kelley and Big Sky Conference Commissioner Douglas Fullerton on October 29, 2010. This contract was entitled “Core Membership in the Big Sky Conference”, and was an invitation by the conference to UND to join the Big Sky. The contract states “This membership shall be considered active immediately upon receipt of your [UND's] acceptance of this offer…”, with the only caveats being that participating in a full conference schedule may take time due to contractual obligations other conference schools had with their current schedules as of October 2010. The contract was signed the same day by Kelley and Fullerton, indicating acceptance by both organizations of the contract terms, and thus the immediate membership of UND in the Big Sky Conference.
The Big Sky Conference later issued a News Release (Exhibit 2) on November 1st, 2010 announcing that both UND and Southern Utah University accepted their invitations to join as core members. Existing schools in the conference were referred to as “core” members, similar to references applied to UND and SUU, so there appears to be no ambiguity that UND has been a full member vs. an affiliate of the Big Sky since October 29, 2010.
In the contract, the Big Sky indicated an intention to “facilitate a full Conference schedule as quickly as is practical”. The news release indicated UND officially joining on July 1, 2012, but this is linked to the university’s requirement to pay a $250,000 non-refundable entrance fee, annual dues of $30,000, and a one-time conference equity payment of $70,000. It was unclear from the documentation submitted if these payments have been made yet, but the contract allowed for the entrance fee and equity payment to be split out over two installments due in August of 2012 and 2013.
Thus, the only remaining possible contractual obligations appear to be UND meeting conference financial requirements. There are also no remaining hurdles spelled out in the October 2010 contract which detail any “final acceptance” process occurring in July 2012, contrary to what UND and the State Board have alluded to in relation to their concerns over retaining the Fighting Sioux name and logo. UND would have to choose not to meet their contractual financial obligations, or expulsion procedures (Exhibit 3) as outlined in the Big Sky Constitution and Operating Rules would have to be initiated.
Such an expulsion would be problematic, as it requires a unanimous vote of all member institution presidents (except UND of course). This is unlikely since schedules for 2012 and beyond are already set with Big Sky Conference opponents. To expel UND now would create incredible turbulence within all member school athletic schedules. There is also no conference Operating Rules or contract stipulations UND is in clear violation of.
More importantly, the Big Sky Conference is struggling to maintain their own relevance, and they are in need of UND’s membership just as much (if not more so) as UND wants to be a part of the Big Sky. Montana and Montana State are the only schools comparing with UND in attendance numbers. The remaining conference schools have lower attendance averages. As an example, the University of Northern Colorado’s (last school admitted to the Big Sky before UND) average attendance is 4,810, compared to UND’s 9,489. The Big Sky also recently added Cal Poly and UC Davis as affiliates for football. They won’t compete in the conference in basketball, which is the second most popular college sport and revenue builder. Most importantly, the Big Sky has lost their top teams in recent years, such as Boise State, University of Idaho, and the University of Nevada. The Big Sky is in need of replacing these teams with other competitive schools, such as UND, to retain their relevance as a conference.
The issue of expulsion from the Big Sky, however, has not been a matter of discussion in debates over the Fighting Sioux name and logo law and retention. What has been is the allegation or inference that UND won’t be able to enter the Big Sky in the first place. Further, UND and the State Board of Higher Ed have missed several opportunities to make it clear that UND was already a full Big Sky Conference member (including testimony on three occasions in front of the legislature), and allowed the perception to grow that UND was not yet a member. It would appear as if they have either been deliberately remiss or grossly negligent in their obligations as public servants to ensure the people of North Dakota, as well as those elected to represent them, had the correct facts on the matter.
The Big Sky Conference also appears to be willing participants in the charade. Concerns over Big Sky membership were never a major talking point of UND and the State Board during testimony before the House Education Committee on the Fighting Sioux law (HB 1263) on January 26, 2011. Both parties even chose to testify neutral during this hearing. It was not until HB 1263 crossed over to the Senate that UND and the State Board switched their stance to opposed, and more importantly, the Big Sky went to the Grand Forks Herald in a March 6th article to express their “growing concern” with potential passage of HB 1263. This article went to press one day prior to testimony before the Senate Education Committee on HB 1263. UND and the State Board also gave greater focus to alleged Big Sky Conference membership concerns during this testimony, ultimately convincing the Senate education Committee to give a “Do Not Pass” recommendation to HB 1263.
After the law was passed in March 2011, the Big Sky Conference issued a June 7, 2011 letter expressing their alleged concerns over continued use of the Fighting Sioux name and logo by UND, and possible impacts on its athletic program. This letter appears, however, to be possibly prompted by UND itself. House Majority Leader Al Carlson, R-Fargo, initiated an open records request on emails between Kelley and the conference in mid-June 2011, and the Grand Forks Herald reported correspondence between the two parties which could suggest collaboration on the letter sent by the Big Sky. In the article, Kelley was reported as writing “Thanks to both you (assistant Janet Carpenter) and Doug (Fullerton) for getting this (letter) to us so efficiently.”
The Herald also reported in this article that “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”. While the actual June 7 letter from the Big Sky never stated pending membership was in question, no attempt was made by the conference or UND to clarify UND was already a member once the story ran in the media, as is detailed in the contract signed October 29, 2010.
Such collaboration by UND with a conference to help influence perceptions on the Fighting Sioux debate is not new. They reportedly asked Summit League Commissioner Tom Douple to influence the Fighting Sioux name and logo issue. See the SAB post from January 26, 2011 on this matter.
Since this time, the Big Sky has retreated from openly discussing the Fighting Sioux name and logo issue. They were pressed twice on the matter by the Spirit Lake Nation in letters penned on September 27 and September 30 to clarify their position on UND being admitted to the Big Sky as the Fighting Sioux; even asking Fullerton in the September 30, 2011 letter to “answer them (the questions) in no uncertain terms. Does your (Big Sky) conference have an unambiguous position on the (Fighting Sioux) name and logo, and is it your intent to not admit UND if they keep our proud name and likeness?”
On both occasions, Fullerton refused to answer the tribe directly; instead opting to make comment through the Grand Forks Herald in response to their inquiries. On neither occasion did Fullerton state UND could not enter the conference as the Fighting Sioux, instead alluding that they may be “marginalized”. With the discovery of the October 29, 2010 contract, it is clear UND already was a member of the conference long before these letters were posted to the Big Sky Commissioner, and two opportunities were missed by UND and the Big Sky to clarify the true membership status of the school in the conference.
It has been long suspected by nickname supporters that the threat to UND’s admission to the Big Sky Conference if they kept the name and logo has been a myth, fabrication, or at a minimum a selective application of the facts. This recent documentation would seem to validate these suspicions. What is also concerning is the same myths, fabrications, and/or selective application of the facts was used by UND and the State Board to convince the legislature to repeal the law protecting the Fighting Sioux name and likeness from extinction (passed in March 2011 with overwhelming public support) during the November Special Session. While unfortunate, it is yet another example of higher education in North Dakota playing fast and loose with the facts to forward their agenda.Tags: big sky conference, board of higher education, fighting sioux, Fighting Sioux Nickname, North Dakota News, Sioux, Spirit Lake, Spirit Lake Sioux, UND, University of North Dakota