Observer Editorial: Leprechauns worth fighting for
Observer Editorial Board | Friday, September 13, 2019
On Sept. 2, Barstool Sports founder Dave Portnoy took to Twitter with a bone to pick.
“You know what is sad?” he tweeted with mock dismay. “Internet outrage culture has made me afraid to say that I think the ND mascot should always be a midget looking ginger. So I’m just not gonna say it.”
Portnoy attached four images to his tweet: a picture of senior Samuel Jackson — one of the current leprechauns and one of only three African American students to ever serve in the role (junior Lynette Wukie, Notre Dame’s first-ever female leprechaun, is another) — alongside pictures of three of Jackson’s white predecessors. The images clarified Portnoy’s racist point: one of these does not belong.
Jackson’s tweet in response to Portnoy — “Like it or not, this guy right here is still one of your Notre Dame leprechauns! How about we use this negative energy to bring us together this season?” — supported by the ND Barstool affiliate account, channeled Portnoy’s controversial commentary into a call to unity. It was an admirable move in its own right.
But Jackson’s response did something else, too. It invited the members of Notre Dame’s community, and college sports fans in general, to ask a surprisingly difficult question: What is a mascot?
Is a mascot, as Portnoy seems to think, a rigid character embedded in the unchanging narrative of a specific team or group? Or is a mascot something more nebulous — an open-ended symbol growing and changing in tandem with the community it represents?
Notre Dame’s history suggests the latter.
According to the Notre Dame archives website, “In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the idea of mascots and team names at Notre Dame was very fluid. Team names often changed from year to year, team to team, game to game.” Mascots from these early years were mostly animals — dogs, birds and even a goat. None were official.
The first leprechaun, John Brandt, didn’t appear on Notre Dame sidelines until 1961, and he did so to accompany the school’s official mascot: an Irish Terrier.
Since then, Notre Dame’s brand has grown exponentially and now reaches a global audience. Each gameday, millions of viewers are exposed to the University’s mythos via the iconic figurehead — a leprechaun, fists raised, ready to fight — and a nationally televised question — “What would you fight for?”
Dr. Patrick McCarthy, class of 1977, fights to protect the human heart, law professor Judith Fox fights housing discrimination and engineering professor Tracy Kijewski-Correa fights to keep communities safe in the face of natural disasters, says the University ad campaign and webpage. “What would you fight for?”
The University’s message is simple: these kinds of people — and the principles for which they fight — represent Notre Dame. Moreover, it is these people — populating the University’s classrooms, quads and playing fields — the leprechaun represents.
It is irrelevant whether or not the students representing the leprechaun mascot fit an inflexible view of what a fictional creature ‘should’ look like.
What matters is that the performer can accomplish the challenging task of projecting, with enthusiasm and poise, the University’s spirit to the world.
Jackson (veteran student actor, self-proclaimed “walking pep rally”), Wukie (high school cheerleader who felt a “need to lead”) and returning leprechaun junior Conal Fagan (from Northern Ireland, former Irish soccer player) are more than suited to the role’s demands. Each brings his or her unique style to the leprechaun, and they collectively create a character that reflects the values of the entire Notre Dame community.
The explosive talent and unparalleled commitment of the 2019-2020 leprechaun class is something we — as Jackson underscored — can all get behind. They remind us there is, in fact, something worth fighting for.