I love sports. Not only am I riveted by the competition and strategy, but I enjoy the ice-breaker that sports often provide. Whenever I’m far from home and begin to feel isolated, sports have always found a way of making me feel connected again.
When I traveled to Europe for the first time, I was fourteen. I traveled with an educational tour group and the only person I knew at the start of the trip was the chaperone from my school. I can be a bit awkward socially, so this was a recipe for disaster. But early in the trip, I wore a t-shirt bearing the logo of my favorite sports team and someone from another school started a conversation with me about it. I was no longer alone.
When I got an internship in New York City in college, I had no idea where to even look for housing. I had a very small stipend to live on and, as you might guess, things are expensive in the Big Apple. My options were limited. Until I found someone from my alma mater, a fellow Bulldog, who had a loft to rent.
Those are just two of a plethora of stories I can share about how sports connected me to someone. In fact, the first time I met my husband he was the referee for my game. Though, to be fair that meeting did not go well and, thankfully, we met again under other circumstances a few months later.
My point is sports are about more than rules and uniforms. Wherever there are sports, there will be a fandom. Wherever there is a fandom, there will be people that fandom connects, for better or worse. So why deny that to your characters? Build them a world in which they can connect through sports. Give them a common ground. An ice-breaker. Or, if necessary, a jumping off point for their animosity. Because that can happen too.
And if you need a bit of inspiration to build your athletic world around, maybe I can help. I am, after all, more than a sports fan. I’m a nerd. Trivia is my jam. And since school is back in session, let’s talk about school mascots.
- The term mascot is actually derived from a French word meaning talisman or lucky charm.
- Mascots can and in some cases should change. Many schools have voted to change mascots for a number of different reasons over the years. Common reasons include lack of fan support and/or a racist connotation.
- The on-field mascot, meaning the human in costume, might change more often than the mascot itself. Two examples: 1 – Ole Miss is officially the Rebels, but their on-field mascot of Colonel Reb was offensive in his design because he looked like a Civil War Confederate. They have changed their on-field mascot a couple of times in the last few years trying to find something that both resonates with the fan base and is less controversial. 2 – At Stanford, each year the students get to redesign the Cardinal (the tree) on-field mascot to their liking. The school has not had an official mascot since 1972 when they voted to stop being the “Indians” out of respect for cultural issues. The school is simply represented by cardinal (the color).
- Sometimes schools don’t actually pick their own mascots. A single line from a sports reporter can sometimes stick. Such is the case for my own Mississippi State Bulldogs. Originally Mississippi A&M, the university was first called the Maroons for the color of their uniforms, and then the Aggies because it has a large agricultural school. But in 1905 a sports reporter wrote about the tireless efforts of our “bulldog defense” and the name stuck. And now Bully is a treasured member of the MSU family. In fact, when the first Bully (Bully I) died, his funeral procession was a half-mile long and included the Famous Maroon Band and three ROTC battalions. He was buried under the bench at the fifty-yard line of the football field. The funeral was covered by LIFE magazine.
- And sometimes a school can end up with more than one mascot when nicknames or images stick. The University of Alabama earned the official nickname of the Crimson Tide when a reporter in 1907 described how the offense, in their deep red jerseys, rolled down the field like a crimson tide. However, on the sidelines today, and on their logo, you will also see an elephant named Big Al. This stems from another incident in which the Offensive-line was said to be like a herd of elephants as they stampeded over their opponent (in this particular case it was Ole Miss and has led to a rivalry across state lines between the schools).
- The mascot and the battle cry are also different. Auburn University is a good example of this. Auburn’s mascot is a tiger named Aubie. However, many people confuse their battle cry-“War Eagle”-with their mascot. The battle cry is separate and there are many different stories about its origin, but the most popular is from a game against Georgia in which an Eagle that had been found wounded on a Civil War battlefield and restored to health escaped its caretaker and swooped over the team. The fans began pointing and calling out “War Eagle” after which the Tigers won the game. The battle cry remains popular to this day.
- Not every team at a school shares the same mascot. Long Beach State is officially known as the 49ers. However, their baseball team is the Long Beach State Dirtbags. Why? Because in 1989 their sub-par baseball team got a new coach who would make them practice on a local all-dirt field that was nicknamed “Dirtbag Field”. They practiced extra hours and ended up with a berth in the College World Series. The nickname is meant to represent the scrappy effort of the team in those days and is proudly claimed today by the baseball team, but no other team at Long Beach State.
- Sometimes a mascot is about owning and reclaiming a disparaging nickname. Teams at Delta State University in Mississippi, for instance, were officially the Statesmen while being mocked by those around them as “The Fighting Okra” because of their location in a heavily agricultural area, among other things. Today, you can find Fighting Okra merchandise at Delta State because they have decided to bear the name with pride.
- Mascots don’t have to be real things. For instance, there is no such thing as a Nittany Lion. Penn State made it up. And they aren’t alone. Virginia Tech uses “Hokies” as their mascot. It stems from a filler word in a school cheer from 1899 because they decided they didn’t want to be “The Gobblers” anymore. It doesn’t stop either fan base from loving their school.
- When a team has an on-field mascot (not all of them do), that mascot is often portrayed by more than one person. It’s often a small team of three or four people and each of them has to try-out with a routine before earning a spot on the team. This is, of course, not true at every school, but for many of them. A lot of the costumes get very hot and cannot be worn by a single person for the duration of a football game without risk of overheating.
Part of me really wants to keep going, but this is only a “10 Things” post and my geek is showing. So that’s it for this month, but I’ll be back with more trivia in October!