The team with no name
Today is about football, about the Super Bowl, but above all it’s National Branding Day, for the NFL, the Patriots, and the Giants. And equally so for the endless parade of carmakers, insurance providers, Big Pharma companies, brewers, and sundry others who will pay millions to ink their logos into our consciousness and subconscious in 30- and 60-second commercial spots.
Out in Grand Forks, N.D., the state university is now without a brand name. The school with teams long known as the Fighting Sioux - its logo of a Sioux warrior among the most iconic in college sports - officially became School Siouxless on Dec. 31. Though not technically a holdout, it was the last school to comply in full with the NCAA’s 2005 mandate that 18 members make peace with their Native American thing.
UND won’t adopt a new name or logo until January 2015. Like the Artist Formerly Known as Prince, UND for the next 35 months will be the School Formerly Known as the Fighting Sioux.
“Clearly,’’ noted UND athletic director Brian Faison, “there is a need for a cooling off period.’’
The school had no choice in the matter. The North Dakota state legislature last year wrote the 36-month “nameless’’ detente into law, one of the final strokes in moving the school and state beyond what became a very contentious, divisive issue.
Truth be told, the NCAA never said, “Out with the Sioux!’’ A few of the 18 schools, as encouraged by the NCAA, talked to their neighboring Native American tribes and got permission to keep their nicknames. The Florida State Seminoles, the Utah Utes, and the Central Michigan Chippewas negotiated with tribal leaders and kept their names and logos. Others made changes. Arkansas State, for instance, swapped its “Indians’’ brand for “Red Wolves.’’
North Dakota school officials, eager to hold fast to a tradition that dated to the 1930s when the school first adopted “Sioux,’’ approached the area’s two Sioux tribes in hopes of keeping the brand.
Good here, said the leaders of Spirit Lake, the tribe closest to campus. As tribal member Frank Black Cloud told Time magazine, “Why should the NCAA come in and tell us that we should be offended?’’
But UND’s hopes were dashed when the other neighboring Sioux tribe, Standing Rock, gave the thumbs-down. Unlike Spirit Lake, the Standing Rocks did not put the issue out to a tribal vote. Its tribal council issued the kibosh, leaving the school with little choice but to abide by the NCAA’s wishes that none of its schools be “abusive in terms of race, ethnicity, or national origin’’ with team names and logos.
On the surface, it may sound somewhat silly and deliciously ironic, especially the thought that the NCAA brand (Big Ed) had to force one of its subsidiary brands (UND) to try to get two tribes on the same page of the corporate/politically correct playbook. One side has a history rooted in paper and attorneys when it comes to conflict resolution. The other is more comfortable with settling things over a fireside chat and peace pipe.
Such conflict is a centuries-old story in the US, dating back to long before “Made in USA’’ became a brand of some note, even before the USA became the USA. Our alleged more civil inhabitants (settlers, colonists, consumerists, et al.) of this part of the planet often have tried to get our indigenous peoples to buy into their brilliant ideas, even though some of those concepts were actually aimed at eradicating the “locals’’ from the face of the planet.
All of which, of course, was part of the stew when the NCAA appropriately decided to honor whatever sensitivities might still exist around the use of such brands as “Seminole’’ and “Chippewa’’ and “Fighting Sioux.’’
In part, I want to yell, “You show ’em, Standing Rock!’’ But another part of me believes that making peace with the past is accepting the present, not forever dragging yesterday’s blunders, no matter how egregious, into the today of the real world.
Meanwhile, the pricey task at hand for the University of North Dakota is to rid the campus of its forbidden brand. The Fighting Sioux logo has to go, although it’s unlikely that it ever will be fully expunged.
The campus rink, Ralph Engelstad Arena, affectionately known as The Ralph, contains some 2,400 of the logos, including one made of brass that is embedded into the marble floor of the arena entrance. The NCAA has granted the school some leeway in redacting the warrior design, but the overall mission is to get it gone, and it could cost the school $750,000 or more.
Some of the cost includes ordering new uniforms. The men’s Division 1 hockey team, the centerpiece of The Ralph and the crown jewel of the athletic program, is still wearing the Fighting Sioux logo, but the team’s new sweaters, ordered weeks ago, are expected to be ready by the end of the month. The school has yet to reveal the new design.
The women’s hockey squad is already wearing new sweaters, and the logo is a simple circle, with the interlocking capital letters “ND’’ at the center. It’s a clean, smart look, making note that the school was founded in 1883. That was nearly a half-century before the school adopted “Sioux’’ as its brand and 122 years before the NCAA finally said, “Enough!’’
“Being forced to change what you’re called doesn’t mean changing who you are,’’ mused Mac Schneider, a former North Dakota offensive lineman who is also a North Dakota state senator.
The school now has these next three years to let go of the past and reinvent its brand. Meanwhile, faithful ND fans still pack the hockey rink, 11,634 of them for each game, and proudly sing the national anthem before the drop of the puck. In a time-honored tradition - one the NCAA can’t do much about - they ignore the last word, “brave,’’ and finish the anthem, “. . . home of the Sioux!’’ The building shakes with each of those final four words.
The punctuation point on the anthem is proof that it’s a school that knows how to adapt. Good for UND. Whatever the new design, the ability to change already is baked into the brand.