A Mascot is someone who brings joy to millions of people and may or may not be wearing an athletic cup. I learned this my first day at mascot school. Two of my classmates, a Clydesdale and a dog, have been discussing violent hockey fans and the need for protective padding. Clyde the Clydesdale—known to his parents as Paul Bonds of Tuttle, Okla.—tells the story of an Oklahoma City Blazers game, during which a young woman walked up to him and, for no discernible reason, grabbed him forcefully a few feet north of the fetlocks. Bonds, who's employed as a rodeo clown when he's not working as a horse, does not appear to be easily intimidated. Nonetheless, he states gravely, "I wear a cup every game."
Thunder Dog (a.k.a. David Knofflock of Wichita, Kans., where the two-day mascot class is being held) is nodding empathetically. "I make appearances around town, and there are neighborhoods I won't go in without a cup."
Our teacher, Pierre Deschesnes, is listening quietly. A respected comic mime, he has spent 17 years in the fur, most notably as Youppi, the Montreal Expos' mascot. But for someone who makes his living through extroversion and public tomfoolery, he is unexpectedly reserved. Deschesnes claims he is rarely hassled, perhaps because he no longer provokes rival fans by representing a single team; instead, he freelances 175 to 200 times a year as a red Elmo-type character called Jumping Jack, making $1,000-$2,500 per appearance at sporting events and trade shows.
Postings on Internet bulletin boards suggest it's not just hockey fans that a mascot need be wary of. The Donk, writing in the "Mascot Central" section of Varsity.com, says she's been "thrown down stairs and punched in the stomach" by Arena football fans. A baseball fan at a Baltimore Orioles game once pushed the Bird off an outfield wall, breaking several of his bones.
What is it about mascots that makes kindly, law-abiding citizens want to brutalize them? Bonds thinks it's the anonymity of a costume. People can take out their aggressions on a mascot without feeling as if they're harming a person. Knofflock blames cartoons: "People are desensitized to violence against cartoon characters." They see them getting run over by steamrollers and pushed off cliffs and then hopping up and dusting themselves off. "They think we're invincible."
Whatever the reason, it's not what you want to hear when you're preparing to make your debut in a dog suit in front of 9,686 Wichita hockey fans.
The very first mascots didn't have to worry about aggressive fans. It was more the case that fans had to worry about aggressive mascots. In the days before animal rights activists and a preoccupation with liability, live cougars and wolverines and such were brought to playing fields and hauled around on leashes. The animals were considered good luck charms rather than entertainment or generators of team spirit.
The first human mascot for a professional team was a man in a chicken suit, out of San Diego. Hired in 1974 by a radio station to appear at concerts and Padres games, Ted Giannoulas and his Famous Chicken act grew so popular that he decided to go it alone. He sued the station, won legal rights to the character and began traveling the countryside in a motor home, earning upward of $8,000 an appearance.
In the 1980s mascots increasingly amped up their performances by piloting ATVs through flaming hoops, bungee jumping and rappelling into arenas. Some NBA teams now pay trained gymnasts six-figure salaries to entertain crowds with back flips and slam dunks off trampolines.
In the rush to one-up each other, mascots have on occasion taken things too far and wound up being slapped with restrictions. New NHL restrictions prohibit skits that make fun of individual players. "We can do something poking fun at a team in general," says Anthony Gioia, mascot coordinator for the Carolina Hurricanes, "but not players."