The Saints Or The NFL: Who Owns The Phrase 'Who Dat'?

The New Orleans Saints are going for their first Super Bowl win ever when they play in the big game Sunday against the Indianapolis Colts. But a battle is brewing over the Saints' motto and rallying cry, "Who Dat?"

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The New Orleans Saints may be five- or six-point underdogs going into Sunday's Super Bowl, but the team's fans have already scored a victory of sorts. The NFL had tried to crack down on T-shirts featuring the Saints logo and the catchphrase Who Dat?" Well, the NFL quickly learned who dat, and it was a city full of irate Saints fans.

NPR's Mike Pesca was in New Orleans this weekend, and he has our story.

MIKE PESCA: It is the rallying cry of a permanently vanquished people, heretofore a siren's song, luring fans onto the rocky shoals of three-and-13 records on a Dixieland rhythm.

(Soundbite of song, "Who Dat?")

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Who dat say they going to beat them Saints? Who dat, who dat?

PESCA: This is Aaron Neville and the Singing Saints, a 1983 recording that was to Saints fans what "I Am Woman" was to the feminist movement. OK, overstatement. But the Saints did start four and two that season, and Aaron Neville gathered some offensive linemen and laid down this famous track.

To super Saints fan Doc Mansina(ph), it's a vital piece of Saints lore. And when he saw someone selling the 45 outside of the Superdome in 1983, he said...

Mr. DOC MANSINA: I'm all over this. So I jumped on that mother, and I own an original copy of "Who Dat?" and I know they don't have that many originals, but I got that 45 in my arsenal of vinyl.

PESCA: Doc is one of those fans for whom the Saints are an expression of the city he loves. He grew up in New Orleans, meaning that he the kind of guy who say dat.

Mr. MANSINA: When somebody rang the doorbell at my mama's house, she'd go: Who dat? People around here say dis, dat, da utter. I'm going over to my mama and them's. We talk that way down here.

PESCA: As Doc gives me a quick history of the Saints, including their first 20 seasons, none with a winning record, a waiter here at Morning Call Coffee in Metairie stops by and offers his take.

Joe Schmedlap(ph): NFL means not for long if you all keep messing with us, I'm telling you.

PESCA: Joe Schmedlap, he insists, is his real name. I'm not so sure because he demonstrates a talent for deadpan after I motion to the who dat shirt this very coffee shop is selling. Do you sell a lot of the shirts?

Mr. SCHMEDLAP: Oh, we sell thousands of them, just literally thousands. Tell the NFL we're selling thousands of them. Oh, man, we're making money hand over fist. It's unbelievable, man, the money we're making. NFL's disgusting. Theyre disgusting.

Ms. LAUREN THOM: I want to see like, a two-X L on a female. I know, they're great.

PESCA: Over on Oak Street in uptown New Orleans, they are less blunt but no less incensed. This is the store and home of a woman named Lauren Thom, who sells T-shirts under the name Fleurty Girl. That's Fleurty as in fleur de lis, which she used, along with the phrase who dat, on a T-shirt that drew the NFL's eye. A cease-and-desist order soon arrived. Thom says at first, she was willing to share.

Ms. THOM: I had no problem giving them a royalty if they, you know, should have had it. But we were also contacted by another company that said they owned who dat. So then it was like, OK, so if we owe a royalty, who do we owe it to? Who dat check belong to was the question.

PESCA: Before the legal issue was decided, the public became involved. Not only did New Orleanians say boo dat to the NFL, they rallied around Fleurty Girl, literally a small businesswoman, 4-foot-11, who sells T-shirts out of a house she rehabbed after Katrina. The store shelves are shutters damaged in the storm.

Two front-page stories in the Times Picayune, public clamor, and a threatening letter from Louisiana Senator David Vitter later, and the NFL has backed off its trademark claim. Tom's now taking orders for the new run of who dat shirt, which will be available in time for the Super Bowl. And Doc Mansina has some suggestions for a sequel.

Mr. MANSINA: People say, who dat? And we go, we dat. You know, do dat, or whatever.

PESCA: In this story, the underdog triumphed. As for the Super Bowl itself, well, let's not forget 1983, which started off with so much promise they wrote a song about it. It should be noted that after the recording session, the Saints lost six of their remaining 10 games and missed the playoffs. Fleurty Girl claims wearing her T-shirts carry no such karmic properties.

Mike Pesca, NPR News.

(Soundbite of song, "Who Dat?")

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Who dat? Who dat? Who dat say they going to beat them Saints? Who dat? Who dat? Who dat say they going to beat them Saints? Who dat?

Oh, when the saints go marching in, when the saints go marching in. Oh, Lord, I want to be in that number when the saints go marching in. Oh when...

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