By Michael LeCompte
We all love cheering on our favorite teams, seeing the mascot, perhaps even identifying with them or relating to them. Where did the idea of mascots come from, though? What do Bulldogs, Zebras, and quite literally every animal and inanimate object in between have to do with sports anyway?
The word mascot comes from the French word mascotte, which means lucky charm. The term’s popular usage can be traced back to a comedic (by late nineteenth century French standards) opera from 1880 entitled “La Mascotte.”
In the opera a farmer named Rocco is cursed with bad luck so he tries to capture the attention of Bettina, a poor country girl, who supposedly brings good luck to whoever can possess her and still preserve her virginity. The play was so popular that it was translated into English as “The Mascot” in 1881.
In 1889, a member of Yale’s football team bought what is considered the first live mascot in major American sports. “Handsome Dan” the bulldog was purchased for $65 and trained to run across the field before football games and to bark at opposing teams. “Handsome Dan” eventually died, but the tradition of live mascots was born. “Dan” was so popular in life that he was stuffed upon his death and is still on display at Yale.
Now several major Universities have live mascots, multi-million dollar habitats for them and scholarships for their handlers.
Here’s a look at perhaps the three most popular live-animal mascots still around today.
Bevo XIV: The University of Texas. The longhorn made his first appearance on Thanksgiving in 1916 at a game against Texas A&M. It is also rumored that the bull was enjoyed at the football banquet that year. Now Bevo XIV represents the University.
Mike the Tiger: Louisiana State University. In 1934 the school collected twenty-five cents from every student and bought a two hundred pound tiger for $750. Successive tigers have followed and Mike VI now roams a multi-million dollar habitat at the University.
Ralphie the Buffalo: Colorado University. In 1934 the school held a national contest to pick a mascot and Buffaloes was the winning submission. That year the student body rented a buffalo from a local ranch for $25. In 1966 the school purchased the original Ralphie and he ran across the field for the first time on homecoming 1967. Although named Ralphie every buffalo used by the school has been a female in hopes that they would be more docile. This season Ralphie IV led Colorado onto the field.
These mascots and dozens more across the country have become beloved symbols of schools and teams. Some have even been enshrined in the Mascot Hall of Fame (yes there is such a place) in Whiting, Indiana. To be eligible for the hall a mascot must have been around for at least ten years and have had an impact on sports and the community.
Of course there is debate about whether Universities should keep live-animal mascots. In an article on its website PETA argues that “regardless of how long they are kept in captivity, lions, tigers, bears, and other exotic animals are severely distressed by the overwhelming noise, crowds, and confusion of games and other events.”
Right or wrong it is exhilarating to see a majestic animal thunder across the field as part of the pageantry of college football. Also, like so much in modern sports, the live-animal mascot issue comes down to economics. Mascots attract fans and make money and if boosters keep paying for live mascots and their habitats and handlers, Universities aren’t going to say no.