Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!

Mascots, especially animals, play a big role in the multibillion-dollar business of US university marketing. Is it all just fun, asks David Mould, or have we gone too far in allowing corporatised Bobcats, Panthers, Eagles and Owls the run of campus?

July 26, 2012

As an Ohio University faculty member, I'm a Bobcat, whether I like it or not. I don't have to go to sports games waving a green-and-white Bobcat banner and shouting "Go Cats" to show my Bobcat pride - the pesky animal shows up in almost every university activity.

New students attend the Bobcat Student Orientation, where they learn how to log in to CatMail and spend their Bobcat Cash in the cafeterias. If you study overseas, you're a Bobcat Abroad; if you're on a military scholarship, you're in the Bobcat Battalion. The Bobcat Essentials campus store offers "Bobcat gear and gifts". The university's new centralised purchasing system is called BobcatBuy. I do electronic banking on the credit union CatsLine. Yes, really.

This pattern is repeated at most US universities and colleges, where branding of a nickname and mascot, usually representing an animal species, is part and parcel of a multibillion-dollar business. Names that began as rallying cries for university sports teams are now valuable intellectual property, the stuff of expensively developed marketing strategies, licensing agreements and trademark infringement suits. You may escape legal action for forging your college transcript, but an army of lawyers will descend if you do a knock-off Bobcat furry toy.

If Charles Darwin were to study today's menagerie of US universities and colleges, he would surely reach some of the same conclusions he arrived at in On the Origin of Species. Large and aggressive mammals such as tigers, lions and bears dominate the wilderness, while the iconic eagle rules the sky. But Darwin might be surprised to learn that the most evolved species he identified, Homo sapiens, is struggling to compete.

What's the scientific evidence for these evolutionary trends? As with most topics in American sports, extensive research has been done. The definitive reference is Peter Fournier's best-selling Handbook of Mascots and Nicknames (which recently entered its third edition as an e-book).

According to Fournier, a lifelong sports trivia enthusiast, the most common name - used by more than 60 institutions - is the eagle, and this total does not include sub-species, such as the 15 golden eagles, nor adrenalin-charged versions such as screaming eagles, marauding eagles or the Mean Green Eagles of the University of North Texas.

Smaller birds of prey can also build image and revenue. There are 21 falcons (if you include the US Air Force Academy) and 13 owls. The jayhawk mascot of the University of Kansas is a cuddly red, blue and yellow creature that doesn't look as if it could fly, let alone catch a mouse. It will survive, however, because the university proved it was among the fittest by fighting its way to the finals of the 2012 national college basketball championship.

But the eagle is the only species of bird to make a top-10 list dominated by large and aggressive felines. "It's a runaway," says Fournier.

The tiger is king of the US academic jungle, adopted by more than 50 institutions, including Auburn, Clemson, DePauw, Louisiana State and Princeton universities, Rochester Institute of Technology and the University of Missouri.

"The universe of felines exudes ferocity [and] persistence," Fournier says - precisely the qualities associated with college sports, particularly American football.

There are also about 40 lions, 33 wildcats, 28 panthers, cougars and 14 bobcats.

All this animal imagery is a sports headline writer's dream, of course. "Bears maul Cats"; "Eagles swoop on Panthers"; "Wolf Pack corners hapless Bulldogs" and "Tigers stalk conference title" are not only easy to write but reinforce the image of ferocious combat in the animal kingdom and the survival of the fittest.

There are exceptions to the bigger-and-fiercer-is-better rule, however. In 1980, when the University of California, Santa Cruz began competing in college sports, the chancellor and student athletes proposed the name Sea Lions because the campus is close to the Pacific Ocean. The student body, reacting against the competitive nature of college sports, countered with the Banana Slugs, in honour of a large yellow gastropod found in the redwood forests near Santa Cruz.

After a five-year battle, the students won. So, in the long term, did the administration. The one-of-a-kind Banana Slug - with glasses, mortar board and Greek motto - is featured on T-shirts, coffee mugs and other paraphernalia. This academic slug, thanks to careful product positioning, must have made millions for the university.

Other counter-culture nicknames have less brand value. There's only a local market for souvenirs from the Fighting Artichokes of Scottsdale Community College, the Delta State Fighting Okra or the Dirtbags of California State Long Beach.

What about the humble human? They tend to be found at institutions with religious affiliations: crusaders, saints, deacons, friars, monks, pilgrims, praying colonels, preachers, prophets and Quakers. The battles of classical antiquity are re-enacted by Trojans, Spartans, Argonauts and Athenians. Others represent tough manual occupations that have almost completely disappeared from the economy: boilermakers, drovers, keelhaulers, muleriders, railsplitters and threshers. No college sends customer-service representatives or telemarketers on to the football field.

At one time in the evolutionary cycle, Native American names were popular. Now this species is under threat, not only from changing public attitudes but also from the most powerful body in college sports, the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

After the "Big Red Warriors" of Miami University in Ohio "went on the warpath" in the 1920s, the university adopted the name Redskins before changing to the present-day name, the Red Hawks. In 2004, the trustees of Marquette University rejected the "disrespectful" nickname Warriors, which had been used for half a century, in favour of Golden Eagles. Alumni and students responded angrily; one trustee offered $2 million (£1.3 million) if the university would change the name back. At the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign, the debate over the Fighting Illini and the mascot Chief Illiniwek is said to have contributed to the departure of a senior administrator.

In 2006, the NCAA called on 19 institutions to change their "hostile and abusive" nicknames, logos and mascots or obtain permission from local tribes to use them. Most changed their names, although several, including the Florida State Seminoles and the Central Michigan Chippewas, got tribal permission.

"As long as names are not used pejoratively, many tribes support them," says Fournier. "Indeed, it's good publicity for the tribe. The NCAA should be more concerned about the academic standards of athletes than about nicknames," he believes.

The fiercest battle has been over the University of North Dakota's nickname, the Fighting Sioux. One Sioux band agreed to the use of the name, but the other did not. A state law requiring the university to keep the nickname and logo (the profile of a Sioux warrior) was repealed eight months after taking effect to help the university avoid NCAA sanctions.

In February of this year, Fighting Sioux nickname supporters collected enough signatures to put the issue on the ballot in a statewide referendum. They miscalculated the public mood because in June the state's normally conservative voters defeated the measure by a 2-1 margin. But they have not given up and are pushing for another ballot in the November 2012 election. This time they want to amend the state's constitution to allow the team to keep the nickname.

Fournier thinks the whole controversy is overblown. "What's next?" he asks. "Will Irish groups sue Notre Dame because they're called the Fighting Irish?"

Although university administrators and academic faculty are loath to admit it, the "tailgating rituals, painted faces, and screaming fans associated with big-time sports" are as much a part of American universities as "physics labs and seminars on Milton", according to the Duke University economist Charles Clotfelter. In Big-Time Sports in American Universities (2010), he documents the costs and benefits of college sports and tries to place a value on the identity created by eagles, tigers and Duke's own Blue Devils.

The entertainment spectacle is puzzling to European visitors, admits Clotfelter. "In no other country in the world", he writes, "is commercialized athletic competition so closely tied to institutions of higher education." Football games close down entire campuses and sports schedules dictate when university meetings can be held. Because of heavy TV coverage, most Americans associate universities with their sports teams rather than their academic reputations.

Clotfelter argues that successful big-time sports programmes help to attract applicants, stimulate alumni donations and bolster support from the community and the state. His research even includes a study of who sits in the college president's box during football games: a mix of well-heeled alumni and well-connected figures from business and politics.

The role of sport in university culture remains controversial. Its excesses and abuses are well documented: coaches who earn more than college presidents, with single-game bonuses larger than a professor's annual salary; dependence on TV revenues; slush funds; recruiting violations; illegal payments to players; low athlete graduation rates; and the undue influence of alumni boosters.

"This gaudy, wildly popular form of entertainment has no obvious connection to the intellectual work of universities other than the name on the uniforms," Clotfelter writes.

The Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics concluded that big-time college sports is "in direct conflict with nearly every value that should matter for higher education."

But for loyal fans, the scandals and costs are outweighed by the feel-good factor - or "consumer surplus" in Clotfelter's lingo - and sport, it is argued, helps to build a sense of community among students, faculty and staff. They are not simply people enrolled or employed at the same institution at the same time, but tigers, eagles and bobcats.

Their loyalty is shared by thousands of loyal fans for whom the pleasure of buying the branded gear, going to a game or watching it on TV far exceeds the cost. In a 2010 survey in Lexington, Kentucky, a third of those responding agreed with the statement, "I live and die with the Wildcats. I'm happy if they win and sad if they lose." An obituary in Alabama's Birmingham News stated: "He was a man of faith who loved his family, his church, his community and the Alabama Crimson Tide."

I can only hope that my epitaph will say more than "He was a loyal Bobcat". I've been to a few Ohio basketball games over the years, but each occasion has felt like an anthropological expedition, a brief glimpse into an exotic culture. More than 30 years after moving to the US from the UK for postgraduate study, I remain Clotfelter's European visitor - both bemused and amused by the hype and hoopla of college sports.

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