[from Reservoir / March 7, 2007]
Let’s talk about sports mascots for a second.
With the recent retirement by the University of Illinois of Chief Illiniwek, it seems that the movement to curb some of the more egregious examples of race- and ethnicity-based mascots is picking up steam again, and in the spirit of the upcoming St. Patrick’s Day it also seems a fine time to take two other representatives to task: the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Boston Celtics.
“Whoa whoa whoa,” you might be saying, “what are you talking about? Surely you can’t seriously mean that those are offensive mascots!”
Really? Let’s look at the evidence.
Notre Dame uses a short, bald and bearded man adorned in gold and green with a four-leaf clover on his hat and his fists raised for a good old-fashioned Irish brawl.
You can almost hear him in your mind: “Ah, put up yer dukes laddie and I’ll give ye a wee bit o’ shame and a big helpin’ o’ pain!”
Meanwhile, the Boston Celtics trot out the pipe-smoking loser in the clover-lined hat, tie and vest.
The knee-jerk argument is that the Irish have never been persecuted or discriminated against in America, and that these two mascots are just loving nods to a beloved culture, and this type of thinking is ignorant and just plain wrong.
The Irish in America have weathered a lengthy and storied history of suffering, whether it’s the Klan rounding up the Irish in the south in the mid-19th century, or an immigrant lying about his last name in the early 20th century so he can get a job, or even just a modern-day Irish Catholic enduring potshots and tacky jokes from those around him whose only knowledge of their religion is what a few monsters decided to do while posing as men of God.
The story and cases might not be as famous or as extreme, but they’re there and they’re real.
Some will say that technically Notre Dame’s little guy isn’t specifically Irish, since “leprechaun” refers to a mythical type of semi-human rather than anyone who is specifically of Irish descent. Those people obviously need to read up on their ethnic slurs. Mick, lep (as in leprechaun), paddy; they’re all the same.
Is the plight of the Irish American on nearly the same level as the Native American? No. Does that matter? To compare ethnic and racial suffering is like comparing cancer cases. In the end, no one wins, and if you’re going to fight for one cause you’ve got to fight for them all.
Surely Chief Illiniwek and Notre Dame’s stupid mick could agree on that.