Over the past few weeks, a little nickname for tonight’s Alabama–Notre Dame college-football national title game has gained some traction: “Catholics vs. Cousins.” You see, because Notre Dame is a Catholic school. And Alabama is a backwater that spawns inbreeding, don’t you know? Get it?
It’s a play on the famous “Catholics vs. Convicts” tagline that was big back in 1988. Notre Dame beat the defending national champions, the University of Miami, 31-30 that year and went on to win the national title. Back then, Miami’s players had a rogue reputation.
This play on Southern stereotypes hasn’t sat well in Alabama. When former Notre Dame quarterback Jimmy Clausen, now a third-stringer for the Carolina Panthers, tweeted a picture of a “Catholics vs. Cousins” T-shirt on Dec. 17, some Alabama fans erupted on Twitter. Clausen took the tweet down. “I’m sorry if I offended anyone by posting that shirt,” he wrote on Twitter. “I didn’t mean anything by it at all … Looking forward to a great game in Miami!” (That’s where tonight’s game is being played.)
Kari Frederickson, the chair of the University of Alabama’s history department and a specialist in U.S. Southern history, says she’s “dismayed” by the shirts. “The characterization is tired, inaccurate and playing on stereotypes of ignorance and lack of cultural sophistication,” Frederickson says. “It’s not only ignorant, it’s wrong.” Jim Cobb, a history professor at the University of Georgia and a former president of the Southern Historical Association, says such ridicule is one of the reasons so many fans of Alabama’s rival teams in the Southeastern Conference, like his own Georgia Bulldogs, are pulling for the Crimson Tide. “Southern loyalties in games like these trump intraregional hostilities,” says Cobb. “The SEC is more than a football conference. It’s a manifestation of regional identity.”
“I’m used to it,” Cobb says of the ribbing. “Though I find Yankees just as amusing as they find us.”
So how did the “Catholics vs. Cousins” shirt get started? Notre Dame fan Matt Fairchild, the founder and CEO of SportsCrack, an online retailer, says a friend and fellow Notre Dame fan came up with the phrase. “Loved it right away and decided to do it,” Fairchild wrote in an e-mail to TIME. “Clausen tweeted me that he loved the shirt so I sent him a couple. Then he tweeted it a week later and all hell broke loose. Haha. It went viral. Great publicity from a great guy. I owe Clausen beers down in Miami.”
Fairchild says he’s sold over 10,000 “Catholics vs. Cousins” shirts in the past month. They’re going for $17. He calls himself a “subway alum,” the popular name for someone who roots for Notre Dame but didn’t go there. Fairchild actually has Southern roots — he spent most of his childhood in Georgia and has a degree in journalism and film from Georgia State University in Atlanta — and he now lives in Atlanta.
His response to anyone who finds the shirt offensive? “I grew up in SEC country so I know how fanatical some people can get,” Fairchild wrote. “The shirt is meant to be a joke. A friendly jab in a rivalry that is being renewed between the two most storied college football programs. If it offends COUSINS then so be it…lol. I have friends who graduated from Alabama and for the most part they think it’s funny.”
Notre Dame distances itself from the product. “Regarding this and other similar shirts and slogans, Notre Dame is not involved in their production and finds them to be offensive in every way,” says university spokesman Dennis Brown. “We do not condone them and hope that Irish fans will neither purchase them or assist in their distribution.”
And it’s not just Notre Dame fanatics marketing this moniker. The hype around the game has crossed international lines. Google Catholics vs. Cousins and you’ll see the shirt being sold on StatsGeekTees, a site owned by Laura Mills, a grad student in Canada. Mills’ site spots trending phrases and slaps them onto T-shirts. “I agree, that is offensive,” she says of the phrase. “It’s like retelling a joke in poor taste. It doesn’t represent my belief at all. If anyone is really offended, I feel bad.”
Mark Wilson, secretary of the Alabama Historic Association and coordinator of community and civic engagement at Auburn University, isn’t all that offended. In fact, he thinks some good can come out of the “cousins” label. “When Alabama wins,” Wilson wrote in an e-mail, “if the stereotype helps others feel better about their loss, I guess our identity has helped us do our Christian duty, as we say in the South.”
(MORE: Politics and Penn State Football)