Who dat claiming they own “Who dat”?

It’s hardly news that the New Orleans’ Saints are going to the Super Bowl, and their ecstatic fans are busy buying up T-shirts and other paraphernalia emblazoned with the Saints’ rallying cry, “Who Dat.”  That slogan is from their widely popular chant: “Who dat say dey gonna beat dem Saints.” But the National Football League claimed it owns the trademark and warned vendors to cease and desist selling non-NFL merchandise that links the Saints and “Who Dat.”

The Saints claim they have been using “Who Dat” since at least 1983, when singer Aaron Neville filmed a video with five Saints players using “When the Saints go marching in” with a “Who Dat” refrain.  The modern sports-related history of the phrase is a little murky — some attribute its first use in the 1960s and 1970s as a cheer at Baton Rouge’s Southern University or to St. Augustine High School in New Orleans or Patterson High School in Patterson, LA.

Historically, the phrase was used in an 1898 song by the African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar titled “Who dat say chicken in dis crowd,” and the longer chant was used in minstrel shows.  There’s also some anecdotal evidence that U.S. pilots in World War II when radio silence was in effect would call out, “Who dat?” and get a response, “Who dat say who dat?” and a follow-up, “Who dat say who dat say who dat?” Interestingly, some Cajuns in Louisiana also claim the phrase and say that’s how they talk — the Cajun Boudreaux-Thibodeaux jokes seem to bear this out.

What is clear is that the phrase has a long history and a long connection to the Saints — and it’s not the team that is selling the memorabilia.  It’s independent merchandisers, and the stuff is supposedly flying off the shelves and carts.

How dumb can the greedy NFL be to take on the Saints’ fans and their favorite chant with a dubious claim even while they are lobbying Congress for an antitrust exemption? They seem to have figured out that the wave of negative publicity wouldn’t help their cause and backed down from their original claim that the NFL owns the trademark for the phrase:

” ‘Who Dat’ we do not claim to own by itself,” said Brian McCarthy, a spokesman for the NFL. “It’s when ‘Who Dat’ is used in conjunction with Saints marks that it’s a problem.”