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Who is Who Dat?

by Erin Z. Bass

With all of the hubbub over who owns the phrase, “Who Dat,” Deep South decided to do some research. I’d actually seen the Wikipedia entry for the phrase a couple of weeks ago after a friend questioned the saying, so I knew it had been around for a while, but I wasn’t sure when or how Saints fans started using it. I certainly had no idea that the NFL had, or thought they had, any rights to it, and assumed “Who Dat” was just one of those charming things New Orleanians like to say. The big question in the media and on Twitter this week is can “Who Dat” be owned, or is “Who Dat” for Saints fans, created by Saints fans.

According to its Wikipedia entry, the chant “Who Dat” originated in minstrel shows and vaudeville acts in the late 1800s. The first reference is believed to be in the song, “Who Dat Say Chicken in This Crowd,” written by Paul Laurence Dunbar, a native of Ohio whose parents had escaped from slavery. The New Orleans connection to Dunbar seems to be that his wife graduated from what is now Dillard University.

“Who Dat?” was a common tag line in minstrel shows, and the question was usually answered with the response, “Who dat say who dat.” (This explains why the Saints’ chant “Who Dat Say They Gonna Beat Them Saints?” is answered with more “Who Dat.”) Even the Marx Brothers had a “Who Dat” routine in their 1937 movie “A Day at the Races,” and US fighter pilots were said to use the phrase in response to microphone static during World War II.

Exactly when “Who Dat” became a cheer for sporting events is debatable. Some say it was Southern University fans in the late 1960s or early 1970s. Others claim it was St. Augustine High School in New Orleans or Patterson High School 76 miles away. (Patterson’s Wikipedia page claims “Who Dat” was started by resident Guy Verdun in the school’s stadium when former Saints running back Dalton Hilliard led the Lumberjacks to the state championship in 1979.) In the late 1970s, LSU fans began using the cheer, and the Saints adopted it in 1983 when Aaron Neville recorded “When the Saints Go Marching In” with a “Who Dat” chant included in the song.

“Who Dat Nation,” a term I just recently started to hear, began being used after a 2006 game between the Saints and the Dallas Cowboys. The Saints won, and following the game, so many people from all over called in to former Saints quarterback Bobby Hebert’s radio show on WWL that he said something like, “Man, there’s a whole Who Dat nation out there.”

So, does Who Dat have an owner, and does the NFL have any rights to it? According to New Orleans’ Monistere brothers, who recorded the Aaron Neville song in 1983, they own Who Dat, Inc. and thus the trademark to Who Dat. Steve Monistere told neworleans.com that the NFL doesn’t own Who Dat or the fleur de lis and neither do the Saints. You can see a copy of the letter where the Saints transfer ownership of Who Dat to Who Dat, Inc.

NFL spokesman Dan Masonson told WWL-TV that unauthorized uses of the Saints colors and marks could confuse the team’s fans and make them think they are buying official merchandise. But Loyola Law School intellectual property professor Ray Arieaux makes a good point in the WWL story. “The question is what does the public associate with ‘Who Dat,'” he asked. “Ownership all depends on what people think of when they see or hear “Who Dat.”

A poll on whodatnation.com may have the answer. As of 9:30 p.m. on Jan. 28, it reported that 86% of the people who voted believe the fans own Who Dat; 13% believe the Saints own it, but only 1% voted for the NFL.

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