College Sports

Shannon Ryan: Notre Dame’s mascots are breaking barriers. They should be celebrated – not trolled.

I know this will come as a shock. Please brace yourself to absorb this earth-shattering news.

Leprechauns are not real.

Trolls are though.

Barstool Sports founder and Twitter bully Dave Portnoy manufactured another controversy to try to ruin a college student's accomplishment for clicks. He noticed Notre Dame has a black leprechaun mascot – the second in school history – and decided this would be a perfect opportunity to whip his Twitter-soldier legion into a racist frenzy.

He tweeted that the Notre Dame mascot should always be a short "ginger."

Of course, Portnoy will say it's just a joke and the world is filled with overly sensitive snowflakes. This is his – and his website's – recipe.

Samuel J. Jackson, the young man who earned the right to be one of three Notre Dame mascots, had a gracious response.

"Like it or not, this guy right here is still one of your Notre Dame leprechauns!" his Twitter account read. "How about we use this negative energy to bring us together this season? See y'all next game."

It's been encouraging to see Irish fans support Jackson.

Notre Dame remains a campus that can be complicated for black students. Black family members and friends have told me upon their first visits to campus they are baffled by the stark lack of diversity. (Less than 4% of students are black.)

"I faced the enormous challenge of discovering my individuality within the confines of unfamiliar and overwhelmingly homogeneous surroundings," 2004 graduate Jamie Austin wrote in the 2014 book "Black Domers: Seventy Years at Notre Dame." "I wanted to be known as more than just 'the black girl' in class, but I felt the need to hold onto my 'blackness' so that I didn't lose my identity."

Austin added how seeing other "firsts" among black students at Notre Dame inspired her.

"Naturally I saw great athletes, but I was also privileged to know the first black leprechaun, the first black female drum major, and a black member of the Irish Guard. With the inspiration of these trailblazers in mind, I found the courage to pursue my interest in cheerleading. ... Even though I cheered before only a few fans at the soccer games in the fall, I presented to them a part of Notre Dame that was often overlooked."

That's why Jackson is more than a mascot. It matters that Jackson is the first black leprechaun since Mike Brown in 2001, and it matters that Lynnette Wukie is the third and the first female to earn the position. She's inspiring girls – and boys – who watch Notre Dame football, proving that nothing is off limits because of someone's race or gender.

With Wukie and Jackson, this is the most diverse group of mascots Notre Dame has ever showcased.

(Conal Fagan, who is white and from Northern Ireland, is the third leprechaun.)

As an ambassador for the university in a role that has traditionally been played by white students, Jackson and Wukie are breaking stereotypes and barriers.

He should be celebrated.

"The advice that I'll follow will be to bring all of myself to the field, whatever that may be or whatever the games may bring out," Jackson said, according to reports, after he was selected in the spring. "And I will use that, along with the rest of my 'Lepre-family', to bring to the fans and the students and the spectators that same joy that Notre Dame brings to me."

What kind of miserable adult must one be to try to funnel hatred toward a college student happily living his life? Maybe it's whatever racism fuels white people so accustomed to seeing themselves at the forefront that they lose it when Disney makes a movie with a black mermaid, or when "Star Wars" features a black storm trooper, or when a college football team has a black mascot.

"Something that was really important to me, and the rest of us is to show people that we're not changing tradition," Wukie said in the spring. "We're not breaking tradition. We're just showing people that the tradition of Notre Dame is for anyone and everyone that wants to go after it."

If you're a Notre Dame fan or even if you're not, you could flood Portnoy's timeline letting him in on the secret that leprechauns are fictional. Better yet, ignore him and put all your support behind Jackson.

If you're at a game in South Bend, Ind., cheer as heartily for Jackson as you do for the football team. Let the sports department and administration know how much you enjoy seeing him on sideline.

Make this leprechaun's reality a positive one.

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