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Chuck Haga / Forum Communications Co., Published February 21 2012

Faison defends comments about nickname, Big Sky

GRAND FORKS – People hoping to preserve the University of North Dakota’s Fighting Sioux nickname are challenging athletic director Brian Faison’s account earlier this month of concerns raised by Big Sky Conference officials, and Faison conceded Tuesday that his report of growing concern on the part of Big Sky athletic directors “was a misstatement on my part.”

The assessment of conference members’ “serious concern” was made by Big Sky Commissioner Doug Fullerton to Faison following a conference call with other conference athletic directors, Faison said.

Fullerton was referring to growing concern among some presidents of Big Sky schools, not the athletic directors.

“I have talked with different athletic directors in the league, and some of them have shared their concern” about the nickname issue, Faison said.

“But that particular comment was made in reference to a conversation with Fullerton,” he said. The nickname “was not part of the athletics directors’ conversation other than Doug talking about it. He reviewed the situation here.”

After the call, “We were talking about the presidents, and Doug shared with me that, in his conversations with the presidents, that the issue had gone from a concern to major concern with regard to the referendum and where that was taking us,” Faison said Tuesday.

“And at the end of the day, this is all about the presidents,” he said. “The presidents will make the decision” if a question rises about UND’s continuing membership in the conference.

UND had effectively retired the Fighting Sioux nickname by late December but restored it earlier this month when the filing of referral petitions had the effect of reinstating a state law requiring its use.

Nickname supporters have cried foul since former UND athletic director Terry Wanless, now athletic director at Big Sky member Sacramento State, said during a Feb. 13 radio interview that the nickname’s potential effect on UND’s membership status did not come up during the conference call.

“It certainly continues to generate a lot of conversation and interest across the Big Sky Conference,” Wanless said, and “it’s obviously been discussed at the presidents’ level.” But “we have never as … athletic directors had a reason really to discuss it,” he said.

A link to that interview, which was broadcast over KFGO-AM in Fargo, was widely shared online, with some nickname supporters citing it to accuse Faison of lying and participating in an orchestrated campaign to stoke fear.

“Once again,” one blog poster wrote, “UND seemingly has been caught stretching the facts to fit the reality they want us to believe.”

Faison denied that and said he was trying to convey his sense of where UND and the conference stand, but misstated the group that had expressed concern.

The nickname struggle continues to draw reaction from around the country, including harsh judgment in a column published Tuesday by Star Tribune sports columnist Rachel Blount, who wrote that nickname supporters “rage on, even as their unwinnable cause wreaks havoc on an institution they claim to care about.”

Nickname supporters’ “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,” she wrote. “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.

“If they truly treasured UND, they would recognize that no symbol – no matter how beloved – is worth this kind of blind allegiance.”

Blount’s column was quickly reposted by other newspapers, including the Boston Herald, and drew scores of comments – from vigorously supportive to weary to hotly disputing – on the Star Tribune website.

Haga writes for the Grand Forks Herald