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McFeely: Not even Hollywood could come up with latest twist in Sioux saga

Fighting Sioux merchandise. Forum News Service file photo by Eric Hylden

FARGO – If a couple of Hollywood screenwriters sat down to come up with the goofiest scenario involving a college and a nickname, they could not have dreamed up the latest twist in the University of North Dakota saga. There's no way.

Well, maybe if they dropped some acid beforehand.

No, on second thought, not even if they did that.

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Here is where we sit in the long national nightmare that is the infamous "retired" Fighting Sioux saga:

• The university's 2007 settlement agreement with the NCAA requires the school to protect trademarks of the controversial logo. This is so the school can keep exclusive rights to license it. The NCAA required that so UND would have control over the logo, thereby blocking others from using it willy-nilly and allowing it to proliferate freely in a hockey jersey shop near you.

• To maintain the trademark, however, UND must produce and sell merchandise bearing the logo. Sort of a use-it-or-lose-it angle to trademark law. Failure to do so could cause the school to lose the trademark, allowing others to swoop in and cause the unfettered proliferation of Fighting Sioux hockey jerseys.

• So although UND is now known by its new Fighting Hawks nickname, the school must continue to produce and sell Fighting Sioux merchandise to satisfy the NCAA's demand that it get rid of the nickname and logo.

You can't make it up. Not even with the use of mind-altering substances.

This is not new news, necessarily. UND announced in a 2013 news release that it was starting the Dacotah Legacy Collection, "a limited edition line of commemorative apparel, collectibles and memorabilia that celebrates the history and tradition of UND Athletics." The news release did mention that the school's agreement with the NCAA required them to do this.

Grand Forks Herald editorial: UND selling Fighting Sioux merchandise? Not a problem

It has sort of flown under the radar since then, however, because UND sports teams were just "UND." There was no nickname. But now that Fighting Hawks exists, the sales of several thousands of pieces of brand-spanking-new Fighting Sioux T-shirts, lanyards and baseball caps is just, well, awkward.

"We're the Fighting Hawks! We're not the Fighting Sioux! That nickname is dead! We are Fighting Hawks Nation! ... But check out that sweet new Fighting Sioux sweatshirt."

It's enough to make a guy feel sorry for the good people in Grand Forks who are trying to make this mess go away ASAP. Or might make you laugh uproariously at the absurdity of it all.

I can't decide if it's more tragedy or comedy.

A number of solutions pop to mind that seemingly could solve the issue.

Could the school just make and sell one piece of Fighting Sioux merchandise every once in awhile to satisfy the trademark rules? Just order a single keychain a few times a year, throw it up next to a cash register at Ralph Engelstad Arena and call it good? That would demonstrate usage of the trademark, would it not?

Nope.

"Usage isn't defined by the law, but we've been advised by counsel that we need to be able to defend ourselves in court," UND spokesman Peter Johnson said. "If somebody comes at us and says we're not meeting the trademark requirement, we have to be able to show that we are. We don't know what the number is that will allow us to do that, but it's not one."

OK. Could the university just have the merchandise made, but not sell it, to satisfy the requirements of the trademark? That way, nobody could get their hands on the new stuff.

Nope.

"You have to demonstrate a good faith effort to use it in a commercial way," Johnson said.

This is a sticky wicket.

Mike McFeely

UND wants the old nickname to go away so it can brand itself with the new nickname, yet it has to sell stuff with the old nickname on it under the agreement that forced it to get a new nickname.

Maybe the question isn't who would write such a screenplay, but who would direct it.

Scorcese? The nickname battle has certainly been violent and bloody enough, but no.

Spielberg? This would require too much subtlety for the king of the blockbusters.

Tarantino? Now we're getting closer.

The Coen brothers? Bingo. The kings of dark comedy, heavy on idiosyncrasies, good use of irony, twisted enough to make this work.

The obvious title?

"Grand Forks."

Couldn't you picture William H. Macy playing Ed Schafer, stuffing a box of Fighting Sioux jerseys into the woodchipper?

Mike McFeely
Mike McFeely is a WDAY (970 AM) radio host and a columnist for The Forum. You can respond to Mike's columns by listening to AM-970 from 8:30-11 a.m. weekdays.
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