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Offended by 'Fighting Irish,' or just green with envy?

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  • Robert V. Schmidt
    http://www.dailysouthtown.com/southtown/dsnews/1420nd1.htm Offended by Fighting Irish, or just green with envy? Sunday, August 14, 2005 By John O Brien Staff
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 15, 2005

      Offended by 'Fighting Irish,' or just green with envy?

      Sunday, August 14, 2005

      By John O'Brien
      Staff writerOn Aug. 5, the NCAA announced it is banning Native American
      college mascots from postseason sports tournaments starting next year.

      Odds are, within a few minutes of the announcement, some yahoo was calling
      in to a sports radio talk show, ranting about how my alma mater, the
      University of Notre Dame, should have to give up its mascot, too.

      Every time the debate over team names such as "Braves," "Redskins" or
      "Fighting Illini" takes center stage, someone claims Notre Dame is just as
      guilty of insensitivity for its "Fighting Irish" nickname and leprechaun

      But that argument is nothing but malarkey. There is a fundamental
      difference between how schools came to have Native American nicknames and
      how Notre Dame teams became the "Fighting Irish."

      By most accounts, the "Fighting Irish" nickname originated in the 19th
      century as an insult against Notre Dame's athletic teams at a time when
      anti-Catholic sentiment was rampant in our country.

      According to the university, one reported use of the term came in 1899,
      when Northwestern University students chanted "Kill the fighting Irish"
      during a football game.

      While Notre Dame actually was founded by a French order of Holy Cross
      priests, "Irish" at that time was seen more as a synonym for "Catholics."
      And the connotation there was anything but positive; Irish immigrants
      frequently were the objects of discrimination in our WASP-dominated society
      — in no small part because most were Catholic.

      For many of my generation who grew up in the Southland, with its large
      populations of Irish and Catholics, it might be hard to imagine such
      sneering references as these to the "Irish," which were anything but
      complimentary. (And even today if you venture outside the Southland to
      other areas of the country — and even other areas of Illinois — you'll
      still find that anti-Catholic sentiment, but that's another column

      Well, a funny thing happened in the early part of the 20th century: The
      sports teams from Notre Dame started winning. A lot. And those same bigoted
      fans of the other schools, who previously had been ranting against the
      "Irish," now had to do so with their heads down, in defeat.

      Eventually, victorious Notre Dame players and fans took upon themselves the
      "Fighting Irish" name, a sort of collective "up yours" to all the
      detractors who had tried to use it to demean them.

      With anti-Catholic — and anti-Irish — feelings still prevalent, many
      Catholics and immigrants (Irish and non-Irish alike) took to cheering for
      the school, and savored each win as a small victory against elements of
      society that sought to put them down.

      After years of being known by various names — Catholics, Ramblers and
      Fighting Irish among them — the university in 1927 picked "Fighting Irish"
      as the official nickname.

      For supporters of the team — including many Irish Catholics such as myself
      — the name remains a source of pride, an acknowledgment of all the battles
      our ancestors had to fight to win respect in this country.

      Most Indian nicknames, on the other hand, were taken on by schools
      dominated by cultures other than Native Americans. Most were accompanied by
      mascots who were caricatures of Native Americans, meant to entertain and
      make us laugh, but at the same time demeaning the culture they were

      The University of Illinois, for instance, didn't get the nickname "Fighting
      Illini" as a way to combat negative images of Indians or as a symbol of the
      struggle of Native Americans in a hostile culture.

      I can't say why the school chose the name, but I saw last week — for the
      first time in any of the reports on the controversy at the U of I — one
      report suggesting that "Fighting Illini" wasn't meant to represent the
      Illini Indian tribe at all, but to represent all of us residents of
      Illinois. If that's the case, why have they had an Indian mascot for so

      But I can say to all defenders of the "Fighting Illini" nickname and all
      supporters of the Chief Illiniwek mascot that likening your situation to
      Notre Dame's is simply a ploy to distract attention from the real issue —
      that Native American nicknames are offensive to many members of this
      culture they're supposed to "honor."

      And I also can say, to all the people who say, "Well, Notre Dame should get
      rid of 'Fighting Irish' and the Leprechaun" — Go ahead.


      If people really truly are offended by either, get rid of them.

      My pride as a Notre Dame alum comes from the lessons of faith, service to
      others, loyalty and friendship that I learned while there. It comes from
      the caliber of academic courses I took. And, yes, it comes from the joy I
      had partaking in many activities while there — including watching our
      sports teams.

      It doesn't come from some mascot who, thanks to constant exposure on
      5-hour-long football games on NBC, has long worn out his welcome.

      And it doesn't come from a nickname that, while a source of pride to me,
      might really bother someone else.

      So rename the teams the Ramblers. Call them the Golden Eagles. Honor "Our
      Lady of the Lake" (as the university's full name translates) with the

      True, as an Irish-American, I'd miss the symbolic value of "Fighting
      Irish," but my pride in my heritage, my faith and my family can't be
      contained to the front of a T-shirt.

      John O'Brien is assistant managing editor for sports and features for the
      Daily Southtown. You can e-mail him at jobrien@....
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