Two swings and two misses

If it’s true that hell has no fury like a woman scorned, then recent events show that a scorned media runs a close second.

The Fargo Forum took a tawdry cheap-shot at Grand Forks District Judge Lawrence Jahnke for a ruling he made in North Dakota’s lawsuit against the NCAA. The Grand Forks Herald singled out UND’s administration in general and Phil Harmeson, vice president for general administration, in particular for “obsessive secrecy” regarding athletic director Tom Buning’s resignation. In both cases, the media’s ire is off target.

Judge Jahnke’s ruling to keep the documents sealed in the lawsuit against the NCAA was immediately followed by a front-page story in the Forum about the judge’s membership in UND’s Golden Feather Club in the early 60s when he attended the university as an undergraduate. The newspaper also ran an editorial cartoon showing Jahnke with “Go Sioux!” written across the back of his judicial robes.

While I agreed with the Forum’s position that the records should have been open to the public, portraying Jahnke as a closet Sioux fan was an obvious low blow. It would have been different if UND and the state had supported closing the records, but the exact opposite was true. It was the NCAA that fought to keep them sealed. Therefore, tarring Jahnke with the brush of favoritism doesn’t even make sense, but that didn’t stop the Forum from extracting its pound of flesh for a ruling that went against the media.

In the case of Buning’s resignation, I agree that there were mistakes made, but they came from many different quarters, beginning with Buning himself. Both the Herald and the Forum have criticized UND’s administration for the paucity of information released regarding the events surrounding Buning’s departure. Such criticism is, at best, disingenuous.

It didn’t take much of a sleuth to deduce that North Dakota University System employee privacy policy and the federal Family Medical Leave Act prevented UND from providing an explanation for Buning’s sudden absence. UND’s administration couldn’t say anything without violating state policy and federal law on employee privacy rights.

 Yes, it’s disconcerting to not know how a public institution is handling turmoil with a high-profile position such as the athletic director. Again, my preference is for openness, especially where my tax dollars and my children’s education are involved.  However, the Herald does its readers, UND and itself a disservice by failing to even mention the primary reason for the secrecy surrounding Buning’s sudden departure.

 Would the media have approved if UND had violated Buning’s privacy rights? I doubt it. And how is it that the one person who could have explained what was happening and why – Buning – escapes all criticism in the Herald’s editorial?

This is not to absolve UND’s administration of responsibility for the mistakes it made in handling the Buning situation. The greatest error was in not publicly addressing problems in the athletic department when they first came to light. But even if that had happened, it’s entirely possible that the outcome would have been the same.

Any objective analysis of events would reveal a variety of factors that played roles in the less-than-satisfactory resolution of Buning’s tenure at UND. Some of them were of his making, some came from outside influences and some came from within UND.

So while I understand the media’s disdain for secrecy at public institutions and its desire to discourage secretive behavior by public officials, I also know that it has powerful remedies at its disposal, such as appealing Jahnke’s ruling to the North Dakota Supreme Court and using the state open records law.

Unfairly labeling and scapegoating people trying to do their jobs under difficult conditions only serves to foster distrust and discourage the very openness and cooperation the media claims to desire.

“Fighting Sioux” settlement agreed to by both parties

The settlement agreement is signed.

Here are the highlights:

  • UND has until November 30, 2010, to obtain namesake approval for its nickname and imagery
  • Approval is only of the form of affirmative support from both the Standing Rock Tribe and Spirit Lake Tribe
  • The NCAA pledges not to contact any Sioux tribes with any attempts to influence them to provide or not to provide support for UND
  • The Spirit Lake Tribe’s 2000 resolution is recognized and will count, but only if an individual authorized to speak on behalf of the tribe affirmatively supports UND’s current use of the nickname and imagery
  • The Standing Rock Tribe’s support must come in the form of a written resolution of approval adopted by any means authorized by Standing Rock’s Constitution
  • Absent namesake approval, UND will announce a a transition to a new nickname within 30 days
  • Such a transition must be accomplished by Aug. 15, 2011
  • If the name is changed, imagery must be removed from any venue used to host an NCAA championship except: historical images, images embedded in architecture, items which will ultimately be replaced because of wear and tear.
  • The NCAA will issue a statement to its members that application of its nickname policy to UND has been suspended, and that no institution should use it as a factor in regular season scheduling against UND
  • If UND is removed from the list of institutions subject to the policy, it will be allowed to play regular season contests at venues it does not own that have not complied with the policy (venues it owns must comply with the policy, and championships will not be hosted at non-owned venues which do not comply)
  • The NCAA will issue a statement that it recognizes UND is a leading institution in educating Native Americans and that it did not make any specific findings about a hostile or abusive environment on UND’s campus.

“Fighting Sioux” nickname settlement

As is being widely reported, the N.D. State Board of Higher Education is meeting tomorrow to decide whether to approve a proposed settlement with the NCAA over the “Fighting Sioux” nickname.

In short, reports are that the settlement would give UND three years to continue to use the “Fighting Sioux” name without penalty. By the end of that three years, UND will need to either secure the support of Sioux tribes or change the name.  Fan reaction has been… less than positive.

A few thoughts:

The State’s willingness to accept this settlement might indicate that it sees the only likely outcome of the trial and the NCAA’s post-trial maneuvers as being forced to either get tribal approval or change the name. If true, whichever of those two outcomes it thought likely, this settlement is a good one.

Those three years would be useful in a few ways:

  • The tribes could no longer feign disinterest — the burden is shifted to them to either explicitly declare support for the name or implicitly demonstrate lack of support; if the name is changed, it will specifically be because they did not support it. If polls about the support for the nickname among tribal members are to be believed, there could be significant pressure on tribal leaders to reflect the will of their constituents. Further, the immediate need for UND to have hurried dialogs to pressure tribes into an emergency resolution is abated.
  • If UND will have to change the name, the three year period provides useful “cooling off” for the school. Fans and alums will have a few years to adjust to and accept the coming change, while hopefully not being driven away or alienated by an immediate change. A generation of students will graduate and new classes will come in, aware of the impending change.
  • UND will have ample time to engage its constituents in any potential change. No need to hastily rush into something they’d regret.

A few upset fans on the message boards think this settlement would be the State giving up mid-fight. That would be true if UND had really been fighting to overthrow the NCAA’s restrictions in court, tribal opinions be damned. However, if UND never saw keeping the name without tribal approval as a realistic possibility, they may have just bought themselves a three year continuance to gain that approval or prepare for the change.