It's Not Easy Being Green (and Gold)
Saturday, January 12, 2008
Students carried a coffin through the George Mason University campus one day this fall, while a trumpeter played taps. A few tufts of bright green fur stuck out from under the black coffin lid: The students were mourning Gunston, the loopy, somewhat ratty mascot who could, one day soon, get axed.
The school is considering whether to spruce up Gunston, a friendly monsterish thing named after founding father George Mason's ancestral home, or get something . . . else. For an institution without many traditions -- it has changed dramatically in its 36 years, from an often-overlooked commuter school to an increasingly residential, diverse and competitive research university -- the choice of a mascot is another way to try to establish Mason's identity.
Gunston's critics, and there are many, wish the school would have a tougher mascot, one that conveys strength, prowess and respect for the school and its teams. Instead, they've got an unidentifiable, fuzzy green goofball.
Mascots don't matter quite as much as, say, endowments. But schools take them seriously: They show up on logos, on T-shirts, on acceptance letters; they strut around recruitment events and ride Harleys into celebrations. Some visit sick children in hospitals and attend alums' weddings. And because most schools are trying to bolster a sense of community and tradition, several university officials said the mascot can be a powerful engine for school spirit.
For example, Brutus Buckeye, Ohio State's wide-eyed, cheerful-looking nut guy, has tons of online fan groups (including "I'm dating Brutus Buckeye" on Facebook).
But mascots can also be an embarrassment, or a third rail.
Some people are so offended by Indian or Dixie mascots that they don't apply -- or don't donate. Not long ago, the NCAA cracked down on Indian mascots, and over the years many schools have changed their mascots to avoid irritating people.
Louisiana State University has taken heat from animal-rights groups for keeping a live tiger as its mascot.
So school officials research, hold campuswide votes, or, like Mason, convene a panel to ponder mascot possibilities.
Some mascots happen by chance. At Wofford College in South Carolina, a neighborhood dog raced onto the field and stopped a player on the opposing team from scoring a tying run; now they're the terriers.
Some happen organically. At Goucher College in Baltimore, the gopher mascot grew out of a popular cheer, "Go for it, Goucher!" that blurred into "Gopher it, Goucher!"
Others are thematic, such as sharks and dolphins at coastal schools. And some -- usually chosen by students -- are intentionally wacky, such as the University of California at Santa Cruz's bright yellow banana slug. A few decades ago, Scottsdale Community College students chose Artie the Artichoke as their mascot. (He won, by a landslide, over a rutabaga.)