The Corner

Structural Impediments to Athletic Mascot Diversity

In response to Get Me My Smelling Salts

As Kat notes, Rutgers students are complaining that their athletic mascot, the Scarlet Knight, “does not represent how diverse we are as a school.” It sounds like the usual bunch of college kids who’ve drunk too much Red Bull, but in this case whiny liberals and harrumphy conservatives can make common cause, because the protesters do have half a point: The Scarlet Knight character is a plastic shell with a person inside whose body you can’t see, so its appearance never changes.  You can’t get much less diverse than that.

I’m not familiar with the history of Rutgers mascots, but the University of Pennsylvania has had a similar experience.  Their athletic teams are the Quakers, and for decades a student would dress up in an approximation of 18th-century Quaker attire and lead cheers at football and basketball games.  For a long time they were all white males, but in the mid-90s Penn had a female Quaker, and in time they would surely have had African Americans and Asian Americans and whatnot, reflecting the student body’s diversity.

But in the early 2000s Penn’s image-conscious marketing geniuses, foreseeing this very possibility, switched to a body-enclosing cartoon costume. “The full suit made it possible for Penn to maintain consistency year in and year out,” whereas a human wearing a costume “prevented females and minorities from having the opportunity to become the mascot, because on some level, the mascot image had to remain consistent.” In other words, they had to adopt a lily-white mascot to allow non-whites to be the mascot.

The much-mocked result was today’s unspeakably hideous plastic mascot, which looks exactly like Benjamin Franklin would if he played the lead in Pirates of the Schuylkill. Nowadays Penn typically has “a diverse set of mascots, representing the Caucasian, Black, Indian, and LGBT communities,” except the representation is less than fully effective because you can’t actually see them.

But the worst plastic mascot ever has to be the character who briefly strutted the sidelines at Alabama-Birmingham in the mid 1990s:

Blazer fans nicknamed him the Gay Viking, and after a couple of years the athletic department cashiered him for being “too Aryan.”  OK, they kind of had a point . . .  

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