During a debate on the Cleveland Indians’ decision to phase out their mascot of “Chief Wahoo” beginning in the 2019 season, ESPN First Take host Max Kellerman expanded the debate to the University of Notre Dame and its use of the name “Fighting Irish”:
“Many Irish-Americans are not offended, but many are. And should that also change? The answer is yes, unequivocally yes,” Kellerman said. “Pernicious, negative stereotypes of marginalized people that offend even some among them should be changed. It’s not that hard.”
Kellerman is wrong that the name “Fighting Irish” is pernicious – that is, harmful, or derogatory. The University of Notre Dame’s football website describes several different tales as to how the athletic program came up with the term Fighting Irish. Among them, the most accepted theory:
The most generally accepted explanation is that the press coined the nickname as a characterization of Notre Dame athletic teams, their never-say-die fighting spirit and the Irish qualities of grit, determination and tenacity. The term likely began as an abusive expression tauntingly directed toward the athletes from the small, private, Catholic institution. Notre Dame alumnus Francis Wallace popularized it in his New York Daily News columns in the 1920s.
The term Fighting Irish is a testament and homage to teams of years past who battled and persevered when the University was but a tiny, Catholic school in the middle of the Protestant Midwest. It is not a negative stereotype of Irish culture, but a celebration of how the university has grown to be one of the most respected institutions of higher education in the world.
An apocryphal tale related by a Notre Dame alumnus recalled that the name Fighting Irish came about due to the university being attacked by a local Indiana chapter of the Ku Klux Klan in 1924. While the term had already been in use before the incident, the resilience of the students in fighting off a Klan rally only solidified the appropriateness of the term.
No matter which way you look at it, the name Fighting Irish is a celebratory term used to honor the toughness of their student-athletes, its rise to international prominence in education, and its Irish-Catholic roots.
Much like how Stephen Colbert would declare any district in his “Better Know a District” segment “the fighting (Congressional district number),” the term Fighting Irish is simply a commemoration of Notre Dame’s history, and is not in the least bit racist or inflammatory.