In his first Rolling Stone feature, Ken Hegan investigates the shocking horrors of mascot abuse.
On July 9th an Italian sausage mascot was assaulted by Pittsburgh Pirates’ first baseman Randall Simon. The incident was witnessed by 22,490 fans at a baseball game between the Pirates and the hometown Milwaukee Brewers. During the 7th inning stretch, the Italian sausage was competing in a mascot footrace with an oversized hot dog, a bratwurst, and a Polish sausage.
As the sausages ran past his dugout, Simon, 28, swatted the Italian sausage on the head with a two-fisted swing.
The top-heavy sausage crumpled to the turf and tripped up the hot dog. When the sausage tried to stand up, Randall, who bats a lifetime .299, made a grab for the sausage’s rump. The sausage managed to evade Randall’s clutches then waddled off to finish the race.
Pretty funny? Not to the woman inside the Italian sausage casing. Mandy Block, 19, barely saw her attacker as he swung for her noggin. Despite her suit’s padding, Block hit the ground so violently that she and the hot dog were treated for skinned knees. Block, who stands 5’3″ and works in a deli, said, “I am real little and I didn’t take the blow very well.” After the game, Milwaukee sheriff’s deputies arrested and handcuffed Simon, booked him for misdemeanor battery, and fined him $432 for disorderly conduct. Major League Baseball further punished Simon by fining him $2,000 and suspending him for three games.
Isolated incident? Think again. These sausages escaped with minor injuries but most mascots aren’t so lucky.
-On June 9th, 2001, Cookie Monster was brutally beaten at a Sesame Street theme park near Middletown, Pennsylvania. Angered that the cookie-loving monster wouldn’t pose for a photo with his 3-year-old daughter, Lee Purcell McPhatter yelled at Cookie and thrust his head inside the character’s mouth. McPhatter then shoved Cookie to the ground and repeatedly kicked its fuzzy blue head and body. Cookie was hospitalized with bruised ribs and a neck sprain. McPhatter, 22, was arrested and charged with assault, harassment, and disorderly conduct.
-Actor Mike Roberds (Uncle Fester from Fox Family Channel’s The New Addams Family) once played Bucky the Beaver in a mall. A man asked, “Are you a girl beaver or a boy beaver?” When Roberds tried to signal an answer, the man punched him in the balls and Roberds fell to the floor in agony.
-Violence marred a 2000 exhibition street hockey game between school teachers and NHL mascots. The San Jose Sharks mascot, S.J. Sharkie, pretended to bite a teacher’s head, then the teachers tripped the mascots and beat them up. Witness Drew McCreadie says, “The teachers went ape shit. The event organizer screamed at them, but it was too late, they had mascot blood-lust.”
What’s going on, America? Mascot abuse is infecting the nation, and not even humanitarian mascots are being spared. The United Way’s mascot, Carey, is a big smiling asexual child. Former coordinator Lori Johnstone said Carey is the United Way’s ambassador “who reminds us that we can instill hope of a better life by caring for one another and working together.”
Carey soon learned how idle suburban youths work together. A pack of boys grabbed Carey’s arms and tried to rip Carey apart. The boys punched Carey in the face and Carey ended up turtled on the ground, absorbing kick after kick. “The most disturbing part was that onlookers did not attempt to give any assistance,” said Johnstone. “They just watched and laughed.”
Worse, mascot abuse is spreading around the planet. In Adelaide, Australia, Sid the Seagull was mobbed by children while shooting a skin cancer documentary. Seagull performer Diana Frances recalls, “A 14-year-old shoved me onto my back, so the kids dogpiled and poured sand into my exposed cracks. I started freaking out, flinging kids off my wings. I was only a temp mascot, so I broke the code of silence and yelled, ‘Get the FUCK off me!!’ One little girl burst into tears and shrieked, ‘The seagull ate a lady!'”
At Total Fabrication in North Hollywood, Kenneth J. Hall custom-builds foam mascots for film, TV, and “themed entertainment.” He estimates there are thousands of mascots waddling around America. Sadly, says Hall, young kids are “particularly brutal to mascots, punching and kicking them like they’re stuffed animals.”
Sheila Girotto of Mascot Distributors repairs mascots like Pillsbury’s Doughboy. The worst part of her job is “watching adults and older children beat up on a mascot. They are usually not drunk,” says Girotto, they “just find it funny to try and take their head off. At a sports event if our team loses, people get nastier.”
Mascots are being battered and I had to find out why. After days of fruitless research, I finally struck gold: a 2001 medical study of mascot injuries conducted by Johns Hopkins University. Doctors surveyed 48 pro mascots and discovered that injuries come with the costume. According to Dr. Edward G. McFarland, mascots reported 179 injuries, half involving the lower body. “You can’t believe how many ways mascots get injured,” said McFarland, adding “some of the injuries were due to fans or players whupping up on the mascot.” Baltimore Orioles’ mascot Bromley Lowe, a study participant, says, “There’s been everything from broken bones to being set on fire.” Another study participant, former Phillie Phanatic Dave Raymond, says, “I can’t get disability insurance coverage.”
Most mascots suffered serious heat-related illnesses from suits that weigh up to 80 lbs. and get as hot as 130°. Half collapsed and required emergency IV fluids. Noah Pransky, a.k.a. peanut mascot Buddy McNutty, told the Los Angeles Times, “During my four years in the ‘Brotherhood of the Fur,’ I’ve had heat stroke a few times and heat exhaustion a lot.” Beth Portman, former designer for the Atlanta-based International Mascot Corporation, says companies try to make costumes cooler, but there is only so much they can do. “Face it,” she says, on hot days “you’re wearing the equivalent of three parkas all over your body.”
Radio programmer Crosby McWilliam once shared a fox suit during a hot summer fair. One scorching afternoon, his coworker rode the rollercoaster, became nauseous, then puked inside the fox head. As the rollercoaster whipped around the tracks, his vomit splattered all over his head and torso. When the coaster stopped, he tried to stagger off to hose out his head, but was trapped by a group of kids who hugged his legs and slapped him in the crotch.
Despite their common horrors, not even mascots can muster solidarity. One morning, McWilliam arrived to discover the fox’s arms and legs tied in knots to sadistically preserve the previous day’s sweat. Would McWilliam work as a mascot again? “No way, not for a million bucks, not for a bet, not on a dare. Not for anything, man.” If McWilliam goes to Hell, he swears the Devil will be “holding a fox suit and saying ‘You have to go work that room full of kids.'”
In a Darwinian sense, perhaps mascots are like wounded gazelles. We, the cheetahs, sense their weakness, then pounce on them to finish them off. Eager for more expert opinions, I consulted Susie Leaf, a psychiatric social worker whose Master’s thesis was on Learned Helplessness. Upon reviewing my mascot research, Leaf wonders if mascots bring it on themselves. “If mascots were beaten as children, perhaps as adults they now provoke others to hit them, thus perpetuating the cycle of violence,” says Leaf. “In this way, they can re-experience the dysfunctional love and attention of their youth.”
Surely the worst case of mascot self-loathing I’ve witnessed was in Church’s Chicken. The chicken mascot was on a break, sitting in a booth, and violating #1 of the three main mascot rules:
#1) never take your head off in public
#2) never talk
#3) never tell anybody who you are, especially while in costume
What’s worse, he had removed his chicken head and was gnawing on a fried chicken leg.
To promote their causes, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) use a menagerie of lovable animal mascots, and all have suffered abuse by the public. An appearance at Douglas Elementary School in Des Moines, Iowa, turned ugly when PETA’s vegetarian mascot, Chris P. Carrot, was attacked by a mob of meat-wielding children. The kids stuffed beef jerky down Mr. Carrot’s costume, then chased him down the street. A shocked TV reporter grabbed one of the boys and said, “You leave that carrot alone!” The other kids chanted “Fuck PETA, we love meat!” and threw bologna at Mr. Carrot’s van as it screeched away.
When will this madness end? Who will remove this mask of silence? Calls to Workers’ Compensation Boards revealed they have no programs for battered mascots. Further calls to civic, state, and federal government offices confirm my worst fears: America has no outreach programs for injured mascots, and police departments are not tracking mascot bashings. When I ask why not, my neighborhood cop just shrugged apathetically. Perhaps he’ll care more if he ever has to identify the remains of his beloved Crimestoppers mascot, McGruff the Crime Dog.
In America, right now, mascots are being mocked, groped, punched, bitten, yelled at, spat on, slapped, stabbed, mauled by dogs, burned by firecrackers, and pelted with rocks, bottles, and garbage. In South America, the Colombian army is exploiting a smiling 10-foot mascot to entice villagers into ratting out rebel guerrillas. And across North America and the UK, mascots are forced to compete against each other in full-contact sports where they are elbowed, tripped, pummeled, and kicked.
So why the violence? “Saturday morning cartoons,” concludes Leaf, “They convince us, at an impressionable age, that it’s OK to beat on cartoon creatures because they bounce back after falling off a cliff and getting clocked by an anvil.” Yet, unlike cartoons, most mascots never speak. Why the silence? “If they spoke, the public would have to acknowledge them as humans worthy of respect,” says Leaf. “Instead, they remain identity-less commodities for whatever company they promote.”
Then again, perhaps mascots refuse to speak because it would ruin the illusion. Maybe mascots exist for the same reason there are teddy bears: they touch the inner child within us all. Whether our inner children want to be touched or not.
It’s not too late. There’s still time to heal mascots’ wounded souls. So let us all join hands, mascots and humans, four fingers and five, in a fervent, fleshy, fake-fur embrace. Hug the Cookie Monster, don’t kick her. And while you’re at it, stop poking the Pillsbury Doughboy’s tummy. He stopped giggling a long, long time ago.
— Ken Hegan
Ken Hegan is a journalist/filmmaker in Vancouver. This is his first piece for Rolling Stone.