Notre Dame University is known as The Fighting Irish for everybody knows the Irish are unstable, mercurial and prone to violence after drinking too much whiskey. After all, look at the university’s mascot.
From a distance the mascot looks like an angry leprechaun. Up close, it’s an old man. But why does he have male-pattern baldness? Isn’t it bad enough to be 36 inches tall? Why does he have to lose his hair? More importantly, why are a nickname and a mascot from a prestigious university dripping with cultural stereotypes?
Notre Dame was founded in 1842 by a French priest by the name of Edward Sorin. Most of the brothers who helped open the school were Irish, though. So were the players that filled the football team.
Initially, the team was called the Ramblers or Rovers for a peripatetic football schedule took them far from their South Bend, Indiana home. Still, the generic nicknames didn’t prevent the players from hearing slurs wherever they went: Fighting Irish, Drunk Irish and Poor Tackling Irish.
At the time the Irish were not loved. The English kicked them out of their own country (Potato Famine). The United States didn’t really roll out the welcome mat (IRISH NEED NOT APPLY). At every step the Irish had to fight their way into acceptance. In fact, there was no single event that the university could point to when they decided to change the nickname because there were so many incidences of fighting:
- The number of Irish that participated in the Civil War
- The Easter Rising and formation of the IRA
- The football players’ run-in with the KKK
- Happy Hour at McSweeny’s Bowling Alley
By 1927 the university adopted the aspersion as a source of pride. They even picked an English-drawn caricature as their mascot. Who cares if the mascot was close to 60? As far as the university was concerned, this old mad could still put up his dukes.
It’s an odd setup to have a semi-retired leprechaun with bad knees running up and down the sidelines but what about a rock? That’s where Georgetown University’s nickname originated.
The university was first nicknamed The Stonewalls, like the president, himself, was given the task. But due to a profound sense of writer’s block and a limited view from his office, he could only gaze out the iron-wrought windows to the adjacent building and say, “Stone wall… Stone wall… Well, if they won’t let me drink on the job, stonewall it is.”
And Stonewall it was even if it didn’t help with the football cheers. You really couldn’t shout out, “Let’s go Stonewalls!” Where are they going to go? The whole purpose of a wall is to remain in place. So the students, already versed in dead languages, took an unhelpful nickname and obscured it with Hoya Saxa, Hoya being ancient Greek for “What a” and Saxa being “rock” in Latin.
“What a rock!” was the new nickname until it was shortened to Hoya for it had a nice ring even if it no longer represented the original nickname. But who cares? It’s not like somebody was going to roll a boulder up and down the sidelines. No, they needed something a little more active, even if it still retained a granite-like form.
Jack the English bulldog wasn’t the first mascot. Georgetown has had quite a few throughout the years. They ranged from Great Danes and terriers to one season where a college dropout named Ned roamed the sidelines.
Interestingly, the first mascot was a veteran. His name was Sergeant Stubby, a Boston terrier who was adopted by a Connecticut regiment that was being shipped to Europe during World War I.
Sergeant Stubby famously served on the front lines as an early warning detector for mustard gas attacks. He helped locate wounded soldiers. He barked at the Irish to keep their dukes up. And he famously caught a German spy sneaking behind enemy lines. This is no lie. Here is his decorated portrait.
Sergeant Stubby served in Europe for 18 months. And when he returned he was invited to the White House and even received the Golden Medal of Valor. And since his owner was off to law school, he became the mascot for the university’s football team, roaming the sidelines with a thousand-yard stare and gruff bark until finally succumbing to a five cigar-a-day smoking habit.
It can be a tricky assignment to find the right nickname for a sport’s team, especially if you are in the state of Florida. After all, not every team can be called The Florida Gators. And you really don’t want to be known as The Muscovy Ducks.
What’s wrong with this bird? It looks like it spent too many nights hanging out with Notre Dame’s mascot. Usually, picking a bird is a safe bet (hawk or eagle), but this one appears to be going through detox. Maybe that’s why the University of Miami embraced its biggest fear and chose a nickname that could wipe out the campus.
Picking a natural phenomenon is an unusual but powerful nickname. Just look at the Oklahoma Thunder, The Colorado Avalanche and The Iowa State Cyclones. Much better nicknames than The Newport Mist, The Halifax Drizzle and The Carlsbad Five-Year Drought. And don’t forget the university named after a toxic algae bloom.
Sportswriter Hugh Roberts was the first to coin the beachfront nightmare when he described a hard-fought game during a rainstorm when the clay-filled mud turned the white uniforms into a bloody mess. Robert’s went on to describe the Alabama football players’ appearance as a crimson tide.
Alabama’s in-state rival, Auburn, has a more traditional nickname – The Tigers. It’s such a popular nickname that other southern teams like LSU and Clemson share it as well. Why not? Cats make the perfect pick. You can throw an unpaid intern into a furry costume and presto, you have a lion (Detroit), wildcat (Kentucky), jaguar (Jacksonville) and panther (Carolina). Cats display what you want in any successful athlete: strength, agility and the ability to roam long distances when the team bus breaks down. What can possibly beat a big game cat? Perhaps a bear:
- BRUIN – UCLA
- GRIZZLY – MEMPHIS
- DA BEARS – CHICAGO
Down the street from me is Roosevelt High School. They are known as the Teddy’s. Here is their mascot.
Can any mascot look ferocious in a wool sweater? And there lies the challenge. Do you want a mascot that is stoic, heraldic, relatable or fun? We can all agree that you don’t want one that looks like it’s hopped up on drugs. Just look at The Fort Wayne Mad Ants.
This mascot doesn’t look mad. It looks like it got into a shipping container of meth. Do you really want a mascot that will possibly attack the opposing team and rip apart the stadium? Better to be cute than maniacal.
Here is a mascot that is adorable even when cornered. It’s the perfect mascot for grade school teams that are just learning the game. It’s much better pick than yet another cultural stereotype.
When I played on my fourth grade basketball team, my dad was the coach. And since he was in charge, he got to pick our nickname. He went with The Little Irish.
Why? Why perpetuate another stereotype? And why was this one self-inflicted? My Dad was Irish and barely 5’ 5”. Why point out the fact on a green T-Shirt?
His argument was we couldn’t be called The Irish because that was the name of the junior high team. And we couldn’t be The Fighting Irish because Notre Dame already had a claim. Still, why pick a nickname that says our team is physically ill-suited to play basketball? Why not pick an adjective with some grit? The Feisty Irish would have been a good start.
But I’ve gone on too long about my maligned heritage, meandering into another Irish stereotype by not sticking to the point. So let us all agree that when picking a mascot, an animal is a safe bet. Still, there are some exceptions. The University of Minnesota and its Golden Gopher is a prime example.
Big Ten schools have a bad habit of picking rodents for mascots. But at least the badger (Wisconsin) and the wolverine (Michigan) are animals with bad tempers. But what makes a gopher a worthy foe? Can it defeat any other Big Ten mascots? The Ohio State’s, Brutus Buckeye, perhaps, but what chance does it have against a Spartan (Michigan State) or Hawkeye (Iowa)? And why is Goldy wearing a wool sweater? I know its cold in Minnesota, but come on, Goldy, show some pride. Get both dukes up!
But enough about varmints. Let’s get back to the Irish and their fighting. Can it be considered a trade? After all, there are quite a few mascots out there that are up to no good.
- OAKLAND RAIDERS
- PITTSBURGH PIRATES
- OLD MISS REBELS
Then you have the exact opposite in the state of Wisconsin where mascots have a more blue-collar theme.
- MILWAUKEE BREWERS
- GREEN BAY PACKERS
- WAUSAU WINDOW WASHERS
It’s a nice sentiment to pick a profession that doesn’t involve bloodying somebody’s nose. But do you really want to hear cheers from the stands like: “Let’s punch in! Let’s punch in!” and “We got HMO’s yes we do. We got HMO’s. How about you?”
Then there are trades I don’t understand. Like what is an Indiana Pacer? Is he a middle-aged insurance agent nervously shouting from the sidelines for the players to be careful? Is it better to pace than to dodge? After all, when I hear the Los Angeles Dodgers, I think of an outfielder running away from a deep fly ball. But the nickname didn’t come from any aversion on the baseball field. It was on the street.
Before they were in Los Angeles, the Dodgers were in Brooklyn. And before there were cars, there were electric trolleys.
Talk about future shock. An Irishman could no longer get blottoed at noon and wander down the middle of the street. The new trolleys were on fixed tracks with fixed stops and those stops didn’t involve slowing down for drunken pedestrians. A dodger soon became a person who had enough sense to get out of the way.
Then there are trades that now seem dated.
In high school I was an O’Gorman Knight. Our cross-town rivals were the Washington Warriors. Their mascot was a student in full ceremonial headgear.
As of today (2020) the school has not changed its nickname. However, it did remove the Indian caricature from the school logo. It seems the school has been making an effort to take a source of pain and turn it into a teachable moment. It even commissioned a portrait of Rosebud Warrior Chief Hollow Horn Bear to be displayed on the gymnasium wall.
Most schools, however, have decided to jettison Native American nicknames altogether, some by their own volition and others with the direction of local school boards, the NCAA or public shaming from private organizations. Log on to changethemascot.org and you will see how pervasive it was to have a school called The Indians, Braves, Chiefs, Red Warriors, Red Raiders, Redmen and the one Native Americans consider the worst of all.
Strides have been made on the school level to rid insensitive nicknames from the sports teams, but when it comes to the professionals, the Cleveland baseball team is still known as the Indians. The Atlanta Braves with their tomahawks and The Kansas City Chiefs with their headdresses can still be spotted in the stands. Then there is Washington’s football team in our nation’s capital with an owner that doesn’t see anything wrong with the nickname and believes he is honoring a proud culture.
The reality is he is not. In fact, he is not even representing any Native Americans for they were never involved in the original decision. Do you think there was a member from The Standing Rock Reservation, who said, “That’s a great idea!” when North Dakota University decided on The Fighting Sioux? It was only after the NCAA posed sanctions that the University decided to reach out to the local tribes.
The school was hoping for a moment of reconciliation like the one in Florida where the local tribes gave permission to Florida State University to keep The Seminoles. But no last minute reprieve would be found on the frozen plains. The local tribes told the university to drop the charade in thinking they were honoring them and so the school was forced to change its nickname to The Fighting Hawks.
It’s really not that difficult. If you are going to adopt a nickname from another culture, get their permission first. (Here is ancient Sparta’s email: firstname.lastname@example.org.) But if you don’t want to go down prickly path of cultural appropriation, do as the Irish do and stick with your own tribe. Then take a source of pain and grow from it. For example in 2019 the University introduced its first African American and woman Leprechaun.
Looks like the old man can finally put down his dukes.