Walter Pierce

RE: Who Dat

by Walter Pierce

It’s Saints Nation versus a corporation as the ‘Big Game’ approaches

Enough already! Players call it the No Fun League because of the $5,000 fines levied for such egregious infractions as droopy socks and untucked jerseys. Who Dat Nation got a taste of the real NFL — a corporate behemoth that fiercely guards its image — last week when the Goliath mailed letters to some New Orleans Davids warning them to cease and desist selling merchandise with “Who Dat” and fleurs-de-lis on it because it violates the NFL’s trademark. C’est what? You want to piss off Saints fans? Tell them they can’t have fun.

Since then, the now-well-known response from partisans of the NFL’s New Orleans franchise has been deafening, a reverberate “Who Dat!” punctuated with a middle-finger exclamation point.

The NFL’s bullying of a French Quarter T-shirt shop owner earned brief mention last week by the Associated Press. But it quickly cascaded into a crescendo of outrage by fans who rightfully feel the phrase belongs to them. Gov. Bobby Jindal, Sen. David Vitter, Rep. Charlie Melancon and Attorney General Buddy Caldwell suited up for the home team. It even inspired a Facebook petition letting NFL commissioner Roger Goodell know exactly who and precisely where he can stick dat.

The phrase was first widely used in New Orleans in 1983 after Aaron Neville released a version of “When the Saints Go Marching In” featuring the now familiar chant over a second-line beat. It quickly became an unofficial part of the Saints brand. Presumably the song was released around the mid point in the season when the Saints were 5-3 — a extraordinary record for a hard-luck team, which finished 8-8 that year.

The expression “Who Dat” actually goes back to late 18th century minstrel songs. If that doesn’t establish its residency in the public domain, what does? Even the Cincinnati Bengals do their own version of the “Who Dat” chant. Badly. Like people over 40 using lol in an e-mail.

But the controversy certainly raises trademark and branding issues that the NFL could probably win if the league had the stamina and committed the resources to pressing its case in court. There’s no doubt that the words “Who Dat” and a fleur-de-lis in gold on a black T-shirt means New Orleans Saints. What else could it mean? It’s part of the Saints brand, and the New Orleans Saints are owned by the NFL. But the producers who released the Neville song also say they own the phrase; their company is called WhoDat Inc. They’ve also pressed merchants to cease and desist, though understandably with a fainter blitz than the NFL.

The No Fun League couldn’t win this one, and it understandably backed off. The expression is too ubiquitous, embraced by too many, and the team doesn’t seem to have a problem with its use by fans and local merchants alike. Neither, apparently, did the NFL for most of 27 years. It wasn’t until the Saints earned a Super Bowl berth that the league got prickly about “Who Dat.”

And speaking of the Super Bowl, it’s perfectly fine for me to use the term in this column, which is part of the editorial side of The Independent Weekly. But forget about it in advertising. Last week the Louisiana Press Association reminded members that the NFL owns the trademark to “Super Bowl” and the term is off-limits for advertising. Consequently, our production staff had to notify at least two clients that they can’t use “Super Bowl” in an ad. So, in these pages, you can find great deals on “Super Snacks” and be directed to a “Big Game Party” at a downtown club. I’m certain the latter is not a celebration of felling elephants and rhinoceroses with high-caliber rifles.

Hey NFL, who dat?!