Senator to introduce nickname bill

Sen. Lonnie Laffen, R-Grand Forks, who voted with the majority in March when the North Dakota Legislature wrote the Fighting Sioux nickname into law, will introduce a measure in the November special legislative session that could lead to the nick...

Sen. Lonnie Laffen, R-Grand Forks, who voted with the majority in March when the North Dakota Legislature wrote the Fighting Sioux nickname into law, will introduce a measure in the November special legislative session that could lead to the nickname's retirement.

"It would be to allow the State Board of Higher Education to do what they wish, retire the name," Laffen said.

The first-term legislator said he has asked staff at the Legislative Council to help draft a bill. He hasn't seen a draft yet, he said, but he expects to have one by the end of next week.

Asked whether his bill would repeal outright the law put forth by House Majority Leader Al Carlson, R-Fargo, which requires the University of North Dakota to retain the nickname, or amend that statute to pass authority over the matter to the state board, Laffen said "I don't think we know that yet." In either case, the likely effect would be quick board action to drop the name.

Laffen's bill will be introduced in the Senate, where he said he is confident it will pass.


"Most people on the Senate side are understanding (the situation) the way I am," he said. "I'm pretty sure on the Senate side we'll make the change. I don't know about the House side. "But I think it's time and I think we'll turn it back over to the Board of Higher Education."

Anticipating legislative action, the board voted unanimously on Aug. 15 to direct UND to prepare for a transition that should be substantially complete by the end of the year.

Tough call, but 'we have no options'

Laffen said it's going to be personally difficult for him to set in motion a process that almost surely would lead to retirement of the much-cherished but long-controversial nickname and logo, which in various forms have identified UND athletic teams since 1930.

"There will be a lot of pushback," he said. "But I don't think we have options. When Al (Carlson) brought up his bill, I think it was the right thing to do, to see if we could influence the NCAA.

"I personally don't want to see the nickname go away," he said. "A majority of people in the state don't want to see it go away. And if you talk with the people in those two tribes (the Spirit Lake and Standing Rock Sioux), the vast majority don't want to see it go away. They gave it to us, they like having that name associated with the university, and I think it should be their choice."

But the 2007 agreement that settled UND's lawsuit against the NCAA stipulated that both tribes had to endorse UND's continued use of the Sioux name to gain a waiver from the NCAA's policy, adopted in 2005, against member schools using American Indian names and imagery. No such approval ever came from Standing Rock, and a delegation of state leaders who met with NCAA officials in early August -- armed with the new state law -- failed to budge them.

"Having met with the NCAA and seeing what penalties are coming up, it appears the option for the university is to keep the name and not play," Laffen said. "We can't allow that. Once we get to the point we're now at, I think the only option we have is to change the name so we can play. I think it's important that we do it."


He said he made his decision to have a bill drafted after talking with members of the state delegation who went to NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis, other legislators and UND president Robert Kelley, who at a gathering with university, civic and business leaders on Thursday called for the Legislature to repeal the nickname mandate.

Kelley "never tried to persuade me," Laffen said, but the president "gave me details on the conference discussions he's had" and other potential consequences to UND athletics -- and the university as a whole -- if the name is retained.

"There are a number of schools we traditionally have played that are lining up not to play us, and that would hurt us," Laffen said. "In spite of all the discussion and the desire to keep it, it's better to play without a name than to not play at all."

Bill will go through legislative leaders

Laffen said he hasn't heard of other legislators preparing bill drafts regarding the nickname.

The special session is expected to last a week and also must deal with legislative redistricting, flood relief and health care, squeezing the time available for hearings and amendments. "But I would assume it would go through the same process as in the regular session," Laffen said.

A spokesman for the Legislative Council said Friday that special rules will be adopted for the session, and nickname and other bills likely will first have to clear a rules committee made up of legislative leaders.

Each bill introduced will have a hearing, possibly a joint House-Senate hearing, the spokesman said, but there may not be much notice given as to time and location.


Chuck Haga is a reporter for the Grand Forks Herald, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.

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