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Team mascots are a mainstay of modern sport. It is hard to imagine athletic events without them. Nevertheless, one could argue that the use of mascots in connection with team sports is a relatively recent, American phenomenon. Team sports have a history that dates back to the era of the world’s earliest urban states, yet we have no clear evidence of mascots being used by athletic teams as they are today until the nineteenth century.
However, the idea underlying the concept of mascot has its roots in the depths of the human psyche and in the efforts of early humans to extend kinship identities beyond families and lineages. As bands grew in size over time into tribes and chiefdoms, societies expanded beyond the boundaries of extended family units. In order to extend the regularities of kinship across greater numbers of people, the clan (from the Gaelic, clann, meaning family, stock, or offspring) evolved. The clan functioned to project the rules and framework of kinship onto the larger group, providing a family-like structure to that group, helping to regulate marriage, define economic relationships, and employ the myth of common ancestry to bond the group together. Clans were defined and set apart from each other by their respective icons: animals, other living things, natural phenomena, or inanimate objects that symbolized the common ancestor of the membership. These icons are what have become known as “totems,” the word coming from the Algonquian language as in Ojibway ototeman or Cree ototema (meaning “his relations”).
Thus, members of the Bear clan would think of themselves as descended from the bear, either literally or figuratively, and would reserve special respect for the bear. The bear symbolized the collective identity of the group, much as the mascot symbolizes the community of players and fans of a particular athletic team (e.g., the Chicago Bears). Thus, in many ways, the mascot as it is used by athletic teams and organizations today is a modern totem.
With the rise of the urban state and the emergence of dynastic governments, beginning some 6,000 years ago, it is likely that the symbols identifying kin groups in prestate societies were transformed into flags, crests, and other icons that represented the state or subgroups within the state. These symbols of community became not only tools for creating a sense of political unity among the diversity of peoples governed by the state, but also motivators on the battlefield and symbols designed to bring good luck and ultimately victory. Dynastic states were dependent on their military prowess, and lags, platoon names, and the identification of the troops with ferocious beasts (e.g., the lion) were important to troop camaraderie, morale, and will to fight. Again, these symbols functioned in much the same way as today’s mascots.
This tradition has survived over the years and into the twenty-first century. The Roman armies marched under their eagle symbol. English troops refer to themselves as the bulldog breed, often using the lion and bear as heraldic symbols Among the Australians, one of its armies has traditionally used the Bengal tiger as a mascot, and its ships often have mascots (e.g., black panther). These practices remain common throughout the world of modern warfare.
“Mascot” is historically understood as though it were limited to the use of magic. The word is defined by Webster as “any person, animal, or thing supposed to bring good luck by being present.” The term has its roots in the French mascottie and Provencal mascot, a derivative of masco, meaning sorcerer. The word was initially used to refer to “something that brought luck to a household” (Mascot 2002-2003). A mascot can be both an abstract icon and a real incarnation. In other words, an institution may use the Great Dane as its mascot and actually have a Great Dane or someone who dresses up like a Great Dane and brings the icon to life.
The term “mascot” was popularized in the late nineteenth century by a French composer named Edmund Audran, who wrote a popular operetta called La Mascotte (1880). Audran’s operetta featured a farm girl who brought luck to whoever possessed her, as long as she remained virtuous. The title was translated into English as The Mascot, and from that title emerged the notion of a mascot as something that brings luck. The sport mascot is, however, more than simply an instrument for the bringing of good luck. The fact that mascots are generally associated with team rather than individual sports gives credibility to this assumption. Mascot is a plural not a singular phenomenon. Tennis players, Olympic track stars, and golfers may use magic and identify with some totem-like symbol, but to refer to them by using that symbol would seem to most to be ridiculous. Calling Jack Nicholas the “Bear,” for example, is not the same thing as referring to Mike Ditka as a “Chicago Bear.” Sport itself is an ancient institution, dating back to the early stages of human history and perhaps even further into the prehistoric period. And even though it is likely that a wide variety of symbols have been used over the centuries to unite, inspire, and bring good luck to teams competing in athletic contests, there is little evidence to document the explicit use of mascots, as the term is currently used, as icons or symbols of particular teams. It is likely that the first explicit association of mascots with athletic teams occurred in the late 1800s. According to Elder (2003, 20), “Yale claims to have been the first U.S. college to adopt a mascot.” Handsome Dan was a bulldog that a Yale student bought from a blacksmith and donated to the university. The bulldog remains today both a symbol of Yale sports and an incarnation of that symbol. The practice has since become commonplace across the world of amateur and professional sport in America and is gradually spreading to other parts of the globe as American sports grow in popularity.
Sport Mascots Today
Mascots today are integral components of schools, colleges, universities, and professional teams. Indeed, many American educational institutions are known almost as much by their mascot as they are by the name of the school itself (e.g., Notre Dame or the Fighting Irish). For the most part, the mascots fall within a fairly narrow range of animals, natural phenomena, and ethnic terms, but there are the deliberately unusual mascots (e.g., the Banana Slugs of the University of California-Santa Cruz or the Artichokes of Scottsdale [Arizona] Community College). According to a survey of over 2,000 colleges and universities conducted in the early 1980s, the most popular mascot was the eagle (72). Not far behind was the tiger (68), followed by the cougar, bulldog, warrior, lion, panther, Indian, wildcat, and bear. For many colleges and universities with large athletic programs and budgets, the mascot is important to image, marketing, ticket sales, alumni giving, and other sport-related revenue streams. Certainly this is the case for America’s professional team sports. Mascots are fundamental to the bottom line, and the selling of the team is virtually the selling of the mascot. The more fans identify with the mascot, the more team memorabilia (caps, T-shirts, windbreakers, sweatshirts) they will buy and the more likely they are to buy tickets or tune into the games on their television or radio sets, even if their Cowboys, Knicks, or Red Sox are suffering through a losing season. Also, as America’s professional athletic teams have become more mobile, migrating from one city to another in pursuit of more fans, bigger markets, tax breaks, and larger profits, the mascot has become increasingly important. Even for those teams whose owners have resisted the urge to move, placing as much emphasis on the mascot as on the place has the potential for widening fan support. For example, for many, it may be easier to feel an attachment to the Colts than to Indianapolis.
The symbolic importance of the mascot is witnessed to in the way they contextualize the game and instill it with a meaning that extends well beyond the contest taking place on the field. Consider the significance of the annual competitions between the Dallas Cowboys and the Washington Redskins. It is a clash of symbols that reach deep into the roots of American history. For the Cowboy fan, the Washington team represents the savagery, cunning, and trickery of the stereotypical Indian brave of the mid-nineteenth century. On the other hand, “the Dallas mascot, the cowboy, symbolizes rugged individualism and courage. He is a repository of the virtues that the team itself embodied—or so it sought to suggest to the public, styling itself ‘America’s Team’.” (Mandelbaum 2004,187).
Europe does not have or does not use mascots to the extent they are used in the United States. Schoolboy sports are generally not as ubiquitous in European countries as in America. Often, there are symbols of collective identification other than mascots that unite and inspire their athletic teams. For example, most of England’s professional soccer clubs are known by their place names more than by their mascot. And when there are nicknames they are often the result of convenience. For example, the Leeds United are known as the Whites because traditionally they have worn white uniforms. The Shefield Wednesday team is so named because that was for years the day of its team practice. Certainly European sports teams use mascots. But they are more likely to be based in superstition and seen as sources of good luck. One reason for the prominent role of the mascot in American sports is the organized cheering, celebrating, and entertaining that surround athletic events in the United States. European sporting events do not include formal cheerleaders, bands, halftime entertainment, and the other ceremonial accouterments that characterize the American ball game. This is why, “to the puritan, the American soccer match looks like a musical spectacular, with interval for a little sport” (Morris 1981, 28). The mascot, as it is known in American sport circles, may be a response to a need not as evident in European sport. Frequently in Europe, rivalries between teams are rivalries between communities that go back for decades if not centuries. In other cases, teams identify with ideologies. For example, one of the roughest soccer rivalries in Europe is that between two Scottish teams: the Celtic versus the Ranger. The former is Protestant and the latter Catholic. Up until recently, the two teams only recruited members of their own respective faiths. Perhaps the unifying power of ideology and longer history eliminates the need for the American mascot model. Because of the ethnic diversity and geographic mobility of the people of the United States, its use of mascots may be viewed as a substitute for that built-in sense of identity and belonging that characterizes European sport. This may be why Americans tend to take their mascots much more seriously than do the Europeans, who “frequently treat their mascots almost as a joke” (Morris 1981, 86). However, as American professional sports become more global, they are exporting not only the sport but also the mascot. For example, the relatively new European National Football League sports a rather jazzy list of mascot names, including the Fire, Galaxy, and Thunder. Also, mascots have become part of the Japanese baseball phenomenon (e.g., Hanshin Tigers, Osaka Kintetsu Buffaloes) and are finding their way into other areas of the globe.
Perhaps the most written-about and discussed sport mascot issue is that having to do with the use of Native American images and stereotypes as team names. Of the 143 teams among the ranks of America’s major league sports, six have “Indian” mascots (Redskins, Indians, Braves). Among the college and university ranks, just under 5 percent of the institutions with athletic programs use such images as mascots. This figure is declining as schools (e.g., Stanford, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, Miami University of Ohio, Adams State College, Montclair State) choose to change mascots in recognition of the problems inherent in what many view as offensive to the Native American community.
It is interesting that, with few exceptions (e.g., Celtics, Irish, Swedes), American teams with ethnic name mascots use Native American images. Why have Native American peoples been singled out to serve as icons for schools, colleges, universities, clubs, and professional teams across the country? As one writer puts it: “Why would it be socially repugnant to name a team the ‘New York Negroes’ but not to name one the ‘Cleveland Indians’? Worse yet, could there be a team named the ‘New York Niggers’? Isn’t that just the racial equivalent of the ‘Washington Redskins’?” (Pace 1994, 7). One writer suggests that the problem is not only that such mascot names project a violent and demeaning stereotype of Native Americans, but that they “promote an oversimplified . . . image of a vastly diverse people” (Putnam 1999, 197).
From another perspective, Native American mascots “perpetuate inappropriate, inaccurate, and harmful under-standings of living people, their cultures, and their histories” (King and Springwood 2001, 7). Despite the inherent problems, controversy, and many court challenges, Indian names, themes, and images remain the most frequent and popular mascots for American schools, colleges, and universities. The University of Illinois and its Illini have been the target of many protests, yet its board continues to defend the mascot and the antics of Chief Illiniwek. The Cleveland Indians continue to defend their mascot and their Chief Wahoo, arguing that the use of the Native American images is an effort to “perpetuate the memory and legacy of [Louis Francis] Sockalexis,” a Native American who played for Cleveland back at the beginning of the twentieth century (Staurowsky 2001, 86). And it appears that the majority of Americans remain comfortable with the Washington professional football team calling itself the Redskins. In response to two surveys conducted in 1992, 80.6 percent of those surveyed in Washington were opposed to their NFL team, the Redskins, changing its name. An even greater percent (88 percent) of those surveyed nationwide were likewise opposed to changing the controversial mascot name. The reasons given for selecting Native American images as mascots for athletic teams are many and varied. In some cases (e.g., Cleveland Indians), it is argued that the images celebrate a particular Native American. In others, teams claim the mascots were chosen to honor Native Americans in general and highlight their strengths and virtues as brave, tenacious, and strong. Some will also admit that when they think of Indians they think of ferocious, fearsome, and violent warriors, the virtues appropriate to sports such as football and hockey.
On the other hand, scholars tend to see more subtle and less noble intentions underlying this phenomenon. For example, it has been suggested that the use of Native American mascots is a ritual reenactment of the hunt, when white settlers were the hunters and the Indians the hunted. The Native American sport mascot is thus a trophy of that hunt and the ritual of the sport itself, which provides a context for that hunt, only perpetuates the myth of the Indian as “hunted.” In a related vein, the Native American sport mascots may be seen as springing from a nostalgia for that time when the invading Europeans looked upon the aboriginals of the Western Hemisphere as savages, albeit noble savages. The appropriation of Native American stereotypes as mascots serves to legitimate “the process of civilization” that led to the virtual annihilation of the vast majority of aboriginal populations (Slowikowski 1993, 25).
Whatever the explanation for their use and regardless of how offensive some might feel they are, Native American mascots are still a dominant component in American sport life. And the protests and challenges have become likewise a dominant theme in the discussion about sport. A variety of Native American organizations with support from other human rights groups have attempted to force institutions with mascots that are offensive to Native peoples to see the error of their ways and find new mascots. To date, the courts have been reluctant to act on behalf of these challenges, citing the lack of sufficient legal grounds. Native American icons are not the only team sport mascots that have created controversy. For at least three decades, there has been public pressure on Middle Tennessee State University to change its mascot from the Blue Raiders to a less politically loaded symbol. The Blue Raiders were troops under Nathan Bedford Forrest’s command, and it is generally assumed that Forrest was the person most responsible for the creation of the Ku Klux Klan. Middle Tennessee State University has a student body that is 12 percent African-American and is under a court order to increase that percentage as well as hire more faculty and staff of color. To date, the conservative voices on the campus and in the community have prevailed. Middle Tennessee State University is still the Blue Raiders. The mascot at Valley College of Imperial Valley, in California, is the Arabs. The story is told of the Valley College football team traveling to Las Vegas for a game in the fall of 1981. They had put a sign on the bus that read “The Arabs are Coming.” Unfortunately, this occurred in the midst of the oil crisis and many were not the least bit amused. Despite the controversy and the portrayal of the “Fighting Arabs” as cunning, ferocious, and somewhat sinister, the college continues to call itself the Arabs. Another social issue that is discussed more in academic circles than in the courts is the tendency for sport team mascots to be male, even though today there are almost as many women as men participating in formal athletic programs. Historically, sport team mascots have consistently been conceptualized as male. For example, it’s always the Rams, never the Ewes; the Bulls, not the Cows; or the Stallions, never the Mares. Most high schools, colleges, and universities have taken the easy way out on this by simply ignoring the gender implications of the name or by putting the gender descriptor “Lady” in front of the mascot name (e.g., Lady Vols, Lady Saints, Lady Skyhawks, etc.).
Mascots have become an integral part of American sports and as the latter continue to proliferate around the globe they are gaining footholds in many other areas of the developed world. They can be seen as the exporting of American culture, a topic that deserves further research. While the term mascot, from a technical perspective, refers to the effort to bring good luck, it also has become synonymous with team spirit and sense of community. And though sometimes controversial, they inspire, energize, and motivate. They also help to sustain a massive sport memorabilia market. But, perhaps most important, mascots are the modern-day totems of athletic programs, both professional and amateur.
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